2020 Lake County Film Festival Standouts
Coverage and reviews by Kevin Prchal
My last great memory before COVID hit, I was walking along Main St. in beautiful downtown Park City, Utah. Soaking in the sun of my last day in town, I walked slower, smiled at everyone I passed, and reflected on the highs of what was my very first film festival – Sundance. The scenic views, the premieres, the exclusive parties, the communal gathering of film lovers from around the world, etc. This, I thought, was a life I could get used to. But as well all know, life had different plans.
So here we are. Nine months into a global pandemic, and we’re left hobbling through the groundwork of a new reality. A reality wherein people cross the street to avoid one another, and cancel holidays to protect one another. A reality wherein my barber makes small talk through a mask and my favorite restaurants hand me meals through my driver’s seat window. A reality wherein concerts, community events and, yes, film festivals have taken to the virtual stage.
As eager as I was to attend this year’s Lake County Film Festival, I have to admit it was quite the adjustment. Looking around, I saw a kitchen that needed to be cleaned, not a line of exuberant filmgoers clinging to their ticket number like a lucky charm. I heard a clunky dryer chugging its way to the finish line, not a round of applause for the cast and crew of this year’s breakthrough indie film. And I felt a little too comfortable given the delicate and, in my view, important task of experiencing someone’s heart-soaked creation.
But I dove in, pajamas and all.
At first, I didn’t know where to begin, so I aimlessly clicked on a few short films to get a sense of the festival. Couple hits, couple misses, nothing extraordinary. But then I discovered a little short film called “Cool for 5 Seconds” that rocked me to my core and I was all in. Given the intimate nature of this film, it hit me that perhaps a conventional festival setting would have depreciated, not enhanced the impact of it.
And so with this new perspective, I welcomed the experience for what it was and continued to discover one great film after another. Some quirky and romantic, some high-minded and existential, some heart-wrenchingly beautiful, and all uniquely appropriate for the emotional gut-punch that’s been 2020.
It was also on my last day at Sundance that the world learned of the helicopter crash that claimed the lives of nine people including Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna. From this tragedy, to a pummeling global pandemic, to an explosive scene of civil unrest, to a sad and divisive American presidential election, this year has stretched every possible human emotion to its breaking point. But it’s in this heightened emotional state that we become acutely and painfully aware of our humanity. A humanity not only shared with billions of others, but reflected in great works of art. It’s in this state where the importance of events like the Lake County Film Festival, no matter how it’s presented, are more important than ever.
Of all the films I had the pleasure of watching, these are the ones that stuck with me the most.
Directed by Daniela De Carlo
We’ve all been tangled up in darkness at one point or another. These days, perhaps, more often than not. But what pulls us out is never the shallow or superficial; it’s the real, indelible, unmistakable strength of human connection. And that’s just what Daniela De Carlo set out to explore in her film “The Blackout.”
In the film, a Halloween party is disrupted by a storm, causing a blackout and all attendees to face the fragile complexities within themselves and between one another. As they move through the night, the experience is less defined by Instagrammable moments, and more by real conversation and community. Fans of John Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club” will feel right at home.
Beyond its thesis, however, is a magnificent display of fresh talent, each knocking on the door of stardom. The chemistry, not just between characters, but among the cast as a whole, is undeniable and can only be attributed to De Carlo’s vision and direction.
“The Blackout” is not a cinematic masterpiece, but I’m not sure that was the aim. What it is instead, is a necessary slice of life, reminding us to lift our heads and look around once in a while, as there’s sure to be somebody we love tangled up in darkness that needs our help.
Directed by Jack C. Newell
In any other year, Monuments would not have stuck with me. It’s larded with sentiment and comedic beats fit for a 90s Nickelodeon sitcom. But this year, given everything we’ve been through, I found myself leaning into the sap like it was a dying fire.
The film follows Ted (played by David Sullivan) as he navigates life in the wake of his wife’s sudden death. Determined to scatter his wife’s ashes in Chicago, he hits the road, narrowly avoiding her family and encountering other off-beat characters along the way. But all of the hootenanny aside, it was his wife Laura’s presence (played by Marguerite Moreau) that cut to the emotional core.
Throughout the film, we see Laura appear at Ted’s side for moments of brevity and clarity. Moments that, not only bring Ted back to center, but the audience as well. It’s these moments that lift the film to new heights of importance and rekindle one’s hope for humanity and connection.
If not for its warmth and sincerity, audiences can be sure to appreciate Monuments for its slick cinematography and tangible chemistry between Sullivan and Moreau. But as we set our sights to 2021 and beyond, let’s be honest: we’re gonna need a little warmth.
Gui Qu Lai Xi (Feelings to Tell)
Directed by Wen Li
In the age of anxiety, we all have our ways of coping. Some actively engage with physical and mental wellness exercises, while others lean a little too hard on their vices. But for those looking for a new medicine, look no further than director Wen Li’s lush and meditative debut, Gui Qu Lai Xi (Feelings to Tell).
The film follows Jiang, a young painter who stumbles upon a mysterious village. It’s there he meets Jiu’er, an innocent and naive mute girl who will soon be taken away to become a “mountain goddess.” When she disappears, Jiang goes on a journey to find her and ends up in a fabled blur of the old world and the new.
This film is a gift. From the moment the first scene unfolds, it never stops unfolding. Through serene landscapes, Malickian portraits and stirring dialogue, we’re thrust into a world so plainly set in reality, yet singed with magic. Scene by scene, it patiently confronts us with the dying beauty of sacrament and all that is lost when we allow it to slip from our day-to-day.
Li’s craft, vision and patience as a filmmaker cannot be overstated. So rarely do we have the pleasure of truly savoring a scene, yet alone an entire film. As the film so faithfully states, “Sometimes we explore quiet, unknown ponds.” Never has there been a quieter pond to explore, and never has my anxious mind been so eager to return.
Cool for Five Seconds
Directed by Dani Wieder
There are two films in recent memory that have drastically raised my blood pressure: The time-ticking, helicopter-battling Mission: Impossible-Fallout, and Dani Wieder’s intimate family dysfunction dramedy, Cool for Five Seconds.
The film connects two sisters, played by newcomers Katherine Bourne Taylor and Mary Tilden, in an unmistakably Midwestern diner. The tension between them is evident from the start and expands to nearly unwatchable levels of confrontation. But of course, like anyone who bears the weight of 2020-induced family drama, I kept watching.
What this film illustrates perfectly is just how inept we have become at communicating with one another – particularly with the ones we love. It’s easy to shrug off the opinions of acquaintances or Internet trolls, but with family it’s inescapable. And watching families work out their shit on screen, while painful, is a tidal wave of dopamine.
The film ends with a simple and sincere “I love you.” These are the words that bind them, no matter how tough it gets. I don’t pretend to suggest that this is a groundbreaking idea, but when told with such bluntness and beauty as it was in this film, it bears repeating.
Directed by Matteo J. Mosterts
By how many people do we feel truly known? How truly do we know ourselves? These days, identity is a full time job, particularly in the age of social media. By either exploiting or protecting our identity, we are actively engaged with it in a way that we never have been before. And it’s in this state of engagement where who we are, and who we present, can often become blurred beyond our comprehension.
In director Matteo J. Mosterts’ stunning short film, Faith, he explores exactly this. He presents to us a nun, played flawlessly by Beth Grant (Donnie Darko, No Country for Old Men) whose identity is outwardly and ritually defined by her faith to God. We see her quietly and gracefully move through the motions of her day, each frame carefully crafted by Mosterts’ masterful vision. But as the film goes on, her humanity and vulnerability is slowly revealed, awakening both her own sense of identity and the audience’s. Without spoiling the end, I’ll say this: you’re going to need a tissue.
And that’s ultimately what makes this film so special. It confronts, not only our personal sense of identity, but the identities we prescribe to others. I believe when the dust finally settles from what has been an unparalleled chapter in human history, we will begin to see each other again. But until then, thank God for the gift of empathy and beautiful films like this that bring it out of us.