Last week (November 9-13) I attended the inaugural Napa Valley Film Festival (NVFF) with a friend who lives in Calistoga and has volunteered in the festival’s planning. Over 100 films were presented, many for the first time at any film festival, in 12 screening locations from Napa to Calistoga. Along with viewing films we had the pleasure of tasting fine wines from local wineries and delicious food at the welcome party (for holders of Pass Plus and patrons). In the next two or three posts, I will be reviewing several of my favorite movies from NVFF.
While this year marks the 30th anniversary of Sundance, walking through the Napa Valley circuit of theaters I kept imagining that Sundance was probably a lot like this in 1981, except for subzero temperatures and a smaller geographical area to maneuver. Since my friend Caroline and I had been to Sundance several times, we had the experience to compare both festivals. First of all, for those who prefer the autumn splendor of colored leaves, hills, and vines, Napa Valley is incomparable. The rugged beauty of Park City, Utah definitely has its merits–especially for skiers–but the subzero weather makes long outdoor lines a form of human torture.
Second, the novelty of the film festival in the Napa area resulted in great flexibility among the friendly volunteers in greeting attendees, guiding them to the complimentary wine tables, and allowing the two of us into the theater after the first minutes of the movie’s showing. Sundance would never let us do that! We were quiet and moved stealthily to seats in the back near an exit. Never an option at Sundance.
The films were overall of high quality with some first runs–“J. Edgar”, “The Descendants”, “Butter”, and “Hideaway”–all produced by major production studios. Several of the indies were charming and original–“Becoming Santa”, about the history of Santa Claus and the training of Santas at a special school, “Jiro Makes Sushi”, about an 85-year old master chef in Tokyo’s only 3-star Michelin restaurant, and “Mamitas”, a coming-of-age film about two Mexican-American teenagers in Los Angeles. The editing, sometimes a lack of subtitles, and infrequently amateurish cinematography in a scene or two marred some of the indie films we saw. As word gets out, however, there should be a broader selection of fine films to choose from.
There were perhaps two major indicators that the NVFF is just beginning its journey to being a major player in the long list of film festivals across the country. One is the lack of adequate signage for finding some venues (Elementary School and Gliderport in Calistoga, for example), where anyone but locals would not be able to find the location. Even my friend hesitated in finding the driveway for the Gliderport venue. The second indicator was the absence of a shuttle bus system to transport attendees from one theater to another, and some were at least 45-minutes apart from point-to-point (Calistoga to Napa). While over half of the attendees were locals this year, that will definitely change as the word gets out that this film festival means business about being ranked in the top ten nationally. With the food (Zuzu, Market, Azzurro, Oxbow Market, Jole) and the wine (unique in comparison with Sundance), the Napa Valley Film Festival is definitely a contender for being a knockout star among film festivals going forward! Check out their excellent website at: www.napavalleyfilmfest.org. (Sundance could learn some lessons in this department from Napa!)