The last days of Hank Williams, the birth of mandolin phenom Chris Thile's new band Punch Brothers, and prize-winning films from the Sundance and Cannes lineups — along with troll hunters, codependent lesbian space aliens, and the sickest pair of clowns ever — all can be found in one of the strongest lineups in the 42-year history of the Nashville Film Festival.
So far, the festival — which runs April 14-21 at Regal's Green Hills megaplex — is keeping mum about its opening and closing night features as well as its roster of visiting celebrities, the elements most likely to change at a moment's notice. But the programming slate unveiled this week is studded with recognizable titles from the recent world festival circuit, bolstered by hitherto little-known premieres, an enticing slate of documentaries, and the music films that have become the NaFF's calling card.
Topping the list is Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the 2010 Cannes Palme d'Or winner from the most acclaimed new director of the past decade, Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Attuned to nature in ways both hypnotic (Blissfully Yours) and pulse-quickening (Tropical Malady), his movies are as sensually immersive as they are disruptive in their breaks with film storytelling: synopses do him no favors, but his latest is said to be a fantasy on the theme of ghosts and reincarnation. The director (who typically asks U.S. audiences to call him "Joe") won an honorable mention in NaFF's experimental category last year for his tangentially related short film "A Letter to Uncle Boonmee."
The world cinema program that contains Uncle Boonmee may be the festival's most striking. The established filmmakers represented this year — including Japanese genre smasher Takashi Miike (13 Assassins), legendary pinku provocateur Koji Wakamatsu (Caterpillar), and France's Catherine Breillat (The Sleeping Beauty) — are an eclectic and exciting bunch, and they're supplemented with outstanding recent festival discoveries such as Michelangelo Frammartino's nearly wordless study of life's cycles Le Quattro Volte (The Four Times) and Romanian director Radu Muntean's relationship drama Tuesday, After Christmas. Joining these are a notable pair of documentaries: the Sundance Audience Award winner Buck, about the introspective cowboy who inspired The Horse Whisperer, and Nenette, a portrait of a 40-year-old orangutan's life in the Paris Zoo from director Nicholas Philibert (To Be and to Have).
Nashville makes its presence felt most strongly in the narrative competition. Included are two films shot in Middle Tennessee: Michael Tully's Sundance discovery Septien, an enigmatic mood piece about a prodigal brother's return, co-starring the director and local actress Rachel Korine, and New York video artist Laurel Nakadate's feature The Wolf Knife, which advances the film career of Springwater favorite Dave Cloud. In The Last Ride, directed by veteran TV producer (and Friend of Bill Clinton) Harry Thomason, screenwriters Dub Cornett and Howard Klausner imagine the final days of an outlaw country singer modeled on Hank Williams (played by Henry Thomas). Also of note is the Rwandan genocide drama Kinyarwanda, recipient of an audience award in world cinema this year at Sundance.
Simpsons/Spinal Tap mainstay Harry Shearer will visit the festival with his documentary The Big Uneasy, which explores why New Orleans residents aren't feeling so sunny about the city's post-Katrina future. It's in documentary competition alongside contenders such as The Interrupters, Hoop Dreams director Steve James' chronicle of ex-gang members attempting to intervene for the better in their communities to ward off violence, and a radically different slice of New Orleans life, Tim Wolff's The Sons of Tennessee Williams, a history of the city's beyond-flamboyant Mardi Gras drag balls. Other films cover a swath of subjects ranging from accused eco-terrorists (Marshall Curry's If a Tree Falls) to a Glee-style championship of teen musical-theater students (Matthew D. Kallis' Most Valuable Players) — and stop us if you've heard the one about the Muslim stand-up comedy tour (Ahmed Ahmed's Just Like Us).
In the "New Directors" program, fresh from Sundance and the Berlin festival comes Clarksville native Clay Jeter's Jess + Moss, a visual tone poem shot on his family's farm about the last summer two adolescent cousins spend together. If that sounds too wistful and elegiac, fortify yourself with coffee for the festival's gonzo "Graveyard Shift" late-show offerings — marked by an escalating battle between two grotesque clowns in Franco's Spain (Alex de la Iglesia's The Last Circus), a Blair Witch-style descent into Scandinavian oddity (The Troll Hunter), and the self-explanatory Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same.
As for NaFF's signature program — its music films — the spectrum covers all points between bluegrass and rap, with not one but two films (Kurt Marcus' It's About You and Will I. Gray's Broke) featuring the contributions of superstar producer T Bone Burnett. Among the artists paid tribute on film are Levon Helm, John Mellencamp, Fishbone, indie rocker Bob Forrest, and the late Jay Reatard, while Mark Meatto's How to Grow a Band shows former Nickel Creek virtuoso Chris Thile doing just that with his new outfit Punch Brothers. And for anyone who's ever partied away a night he can't remember, "Heavy Metal Parking Lot" auteur Jeff Krulik commemorates a 1985 Maryland headbangers' holiday in Heavy Metal Picnic.
NaFF now regularly draws more than 20,000 viewers, and this outing should get a boost from the festival's new corporate sponsor Nissan. Selections this year were culled from 2,403 entries representing 102 countries, according to NaFF artistic director Brian Owens, who says sharp-eyed viewers will note the recurrence of elements such as religious themes, fictional stories situated in nonfiction settings, and class conflict and economic hardship among this year's offerings — signs of the times indeed.