Natalie Portman, Jennifer Connelly Honor Darren Aronofsky at Woodstock Film Festival

Natalie Portman Jennifer Connelly Darren Aronofsky Woodstock Film Fest 2014 H
Simon Russell

Courteney Cox's directorial debut, docs on Pauly Shore, Orson Wells were among the highlights of the "fiercely independent" five-night event

Quaintly fulfilling its powerful but laid back image, the Woodstock Film Festival celebrated its 15th anniversary Oct. 15 to 19 while also reaching into the neighboring New York towns of Rosendale, Saugerties, Rhinebeck and Kingston.

This year, the fest drew appearances and participation from the likes of Natalie Portman, Jennifer Connelly, Courteney Cox, Seann William Scott, Darren Aronofsky, Mark Duplass and Pauly Shore, and featured 22 world premieres.

At Wednesday night’s screening of the compassion-minded documentary East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem, musicians Steve Earle said, “I’m a peacenik…I wrote the song “Jerusalem” without ever having seen it. David [Broza] made me an honest man. I thank him for that.” Another conscious documentary, A Snake Gives Birth To A Snake, followed a theatrical troupe’s dramatic and musical depiction of the South African Truth and Reconciliation hearings as they toured similarly divisive regions like Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

Another doc offering, the self-directed cinéma vérité documentary Pauly Shore Stands Alone, was surprisingly touching and vulnerably honest, showing the once-famous comedy star’s deep empathy for his family as well as his fans as he tours through a wintery, semi-rural Wisconsin.

The WFF supported a large percentage of directors who just happened to be women. Courteney Cox screened her directorial debut Just Before I Go starring Seann William Scott (pictured) and also took part in the panel "Women in the Director’s Chair."

At the fest’s 15th annual Maverick Awards Ceremony, Irish director Terry McMahon’s film Patrick’s Day hit the trifecta — winning Best Narrative Feature, Best Cinematography, and Best Editing of a Feature Narrative. The Best Documentary Feature was awarded to directors Andrea Kalin and Oliver Lukacs for their film Red Lines and Best Female Director went to Caryn Waechter for her narrative Sisterhood Of The Night. The WFF’s 2014 Fiercely Independent Award went to that magnificent multitasker Mark Duplass, while Jennifer Connelly and Natalie Portman happily presented Noah director Darren Aronofsky with the esteemed Honorary Maverick Award. Ms. Portman credited Aronofsky with giving her with a great role in Black Swan, introducing her to her husband, and working extremely hard to help save the environment. 

Speaking of the environment, Wildlike starring Bruce Greenwood and directed by Frank Hall Green is a beautiful and dramatic film that shrewdly deals with sexual abuse while simultaneously reveling in the expansive and breathtaking backdrop of the Alaskan frontier. Interestingly, director Joe Muszynski’s film Mahjong And The West deals with a similar subject in a completely different setting — Wyoming — and comes to a remarkably parallel conclusion.

Other highlights included the adrenaline-charged pop-noir mystery The American Side, starring screenwriter Greg Stuhr as a stereotypically hard-boiled/relentless detective along with Robert Forster, Matthew Broderick, Janeane Garafolo and the great Robert Vaughn. Also of note was The Man Who Saved The World by Danish director Peter Anthony, which combines elements of narrative and documentary filmmaking for a true and powerful story about (and starring, as himself) Stanislov Petrov, who actually averted a nuclear holocaust but remained unknown, until now. Finally, the documentary Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Wells, directed by Chuck Workman, paid an apt and thorough tribute to the fiercely independent and hugely influential actor-director.

Says WFF co-founder Meira Blaustein: “From the get-go our tag line has been “fiercely independent” and that stands for our personality — the programming, how we run it, the filmmakers, the community — it just lends itself to a casual, intimate, and friendly atmosphere with strong programming and great people attending.” Agreed.