City's among the stars of 19th Philadelphia Film Festival

In "The Best and the Brightest," a farce set in New York and starring (from left) Peter Serafinowicz, Amy Sedaris, Bonnie Somerville, and Neil Patrick Harris, Rittenhouse Square stands in for Central Park.
In "The Best and the Brightest," a farce set in New York and starring (from left) Peter Serafinowicz, Amy Sedaris, Bonnie Somerville, and Neil Patrick Harris, Rittenhouse Square stands in for Central Park.
Posted: October 14, 2010

The annual Philadelphia Film Festival opens Thursday night with the local premiere of the psycho-thriller Black Swan and one of the strongest programs in its 19-year history. With movies set as far away as Thailand (Cannes winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) and as near as Rittenhouse Square, this year's festival trains twin kliegs on local color and local talents.

Some, like M. Night Shyamalan, who will take questions from the audience after an Oct. 21 screening of his 2000 nail-biter, Unbreakable, grew up in Philadelphia.

Others, like Tanya Hamilton, the Jamaica-born maker of Night Catches Us, a Sundance favorite about the last days of the black-power movement, relocated here from New York for the "civility, cultural support, and creative elbow room."

Still others, like the 14 Pennsylvania Ballet dancers who perform in Black Swan and the Roots, who furnished the retro-soul soundtrack for Night Catches Us, are members of beloved institutions.

The program, which also includes the tales of a West Philly beanery (Cafe) and a Center City ad executive tempted by small-town life (Lebanon, Pa.), speaks to the vibrancy of a region long a setting for films and increasingly a home to filmmakers.

Philadelphia's wealth of locations and architecture of every period from colonial to modernist are visible in the locally connected films, which run the gamut from blue-blood to blue-collar. In The Best and the Brightest, a farce about the admissions competition to get into one of Manhattan's elite private schools, Rittenhouse Square stands in for Central Park. Philadelphia and Scranton are the settings of Blue Valentine, an intimate relationship drama with Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams that was well received at Sundance.

"Almost anything you want to shoot, you can shoot in this region," says Marc Erlbaum, the Haverford-born, Merion-based filmmaker of two festival movies. Cafe, his magic-realist parable of community that unfolds in a coffeehouse, features Jennifer Love Hewitt and Jamie Kennedy. A Buddy Story, a road movie about a struggling musician who makes his way from New York to Philadelphia's Main Line, stars Gavin Bellour and Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss.

"If you want urban, rural, or suburban, it's all within a 45-minute radius," Erlbaum extols. "And the Wissahickon - you can be right in the middle of the city and it can double for Colorado or Maine."

Rittenhouse Town in the Wissahickon, representing an escape from the police brutality of '70s-era Germantown, is the setting for key scenes in the atmospheric Night Catches Us, which boasts powerful performances from Kerry Washington and Anthony Mackie.

Although producers encouraged filmmaker Hamilton to set the movie in Brooklyn, "Philadelphia made the most sense," she said. For one thing, it's conducive to making a period film because the neighborhoods haven't changed. For another, "Philadelphia made sense because of its particular history of police repression and African American resistance."

In New York, Hamilton says, "I felt I was treading water in a massive pool." When the graduate of Cooper Union and Columbia University came to Philadelphia in 2000, she was buoyed by grants from the Pew and Leeway Foundations. "Philadelphia's a great city to be an artist," says Hamilton, who lives in Northern Liberties. And a great city to be a filmmaker, she adds, "because the state film tax incentives and Greater Philadelphia Film Office give financing and technical support."

Ben Hickernell, the Baltimore-born filmmaker of Lebanon, Pa., came to the Philadelphia region to attend Haverford College in 1996 and put down roots. "Philly sucked me right in," says Hickernell, whose night job is as the manager of the Bryn Mawr Film Institute.

His movie, a heart-warmer about the unlikely friendship between a 35-year-old Philly adman and an 18-year-old girl from the Pennsylvania hamlet, features the knockout movie debut of Rachel Kitson, a theater student at Temple University.

Hickernell, who lives in Glassboro, cites the tax credit and the film office as incalculable supports. He is rhapsodic about Philadelphia's "great crew base, its affordability, and the generosity of local companies in donating services to filmmakers."

"Philadelphia's a great place to make movies," says Hickernell, whose movie was lauded at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. "But it's not yet a great place to get a distributor from."

"That is set to change," says J. Andrew Greenblatt, the film festival's executive director, who expects that scouts from indie distributors Magnolia and IFC will be attending.

Among the locally connected films, most singular is Bud Clayman's documentary OC87: The Obsessive Compulsive, Major Depression, Bipolar, Asperger's Movie.

Clayman, a Philadelphia-born and raised filmmaker who graduated from Temple University, chronicles his 30-year struggle with mental illness in his film, incorporating his own video diaries and interviews with others working through their mental illness. Of the film, made with collaborators Scott Johnston and Glenn Holsten, Clayman says, "It's less concerned with external landscapes than with internal ones."

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at

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