Kate Winslet's performance in Labor Day - as a shattered single mom who finds reason to live again, thanks to an escaped convict - is unlike anything she has done before. Judi Dench, in the title role of Stephen Frears' surprisingly poignant, and pointed, Philomena, is not to be taken lightly, even as her travels with costar Steve Coogan produce moments of unexpected hilarity. The screen adaptation of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer-winning play August: Osage County, with a stellar cast headed by Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep, is crackling with Oscar buzz. Eleven of the foreign-language films on the schedule have been submitted for Oscar consideration by their countries of origin. And God Loves Uganda and The Unknown Known top pundits' lists in the best-doc category.
But this Philadelphia Film Festival, the 22d, isn't just about high-profile, heat-seeking movies. There are 96 features and 29 shorts, hailing from 36 countries. With new venues (the Perelman, a restored Prince, and an "Open House" peek into the not-quite-ready-yet Roxy Theater, the designated new home for the Philadelphia Film Society, producers of the festival), the program is rich and varied. There are homegrown Philly films, American indies, world cinema selections, French, Spanish and Eastern European lists, nonfiction, animated shorts, and excess-fueled expeditions into horror, gore, and suspense.
PFF executive director Andrew Greenblatt, artistic director Michael Lerman, and their team have plucked some of the riches from Cannes, Toronto, and other premiere fests. The lesbian love story Blue Is the Warmest Color, winner of the grand prize at Cannes in May, arrives with kudos and controversies. Its leads, Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux, have talked candidly about the ordeal of working for director Abdellatif Kechiche, whose graphic documentation of young women having sex has struck many as exploitive. He drove them, they have said, to the brink.
On the home front, Jason Osder's Let the Fire Burn, which revisits the City of Philadelphia's nightmare 1985 bombing of a West Philadelphia MOVE compound that resulted in the deaths of 11 people (including five children) and the destruction of 61 homes, is a must-see. Eschewing traditional documentary tools - no talking-head interviews, no reenactments, no voice-over narration - Osder pieces together archival footage from TV news sources, Philadelphia Police Department video, and testimony from the MOVE Commission hearings, all to chilling effect.
How could this have happened? And could something like it happen again? Osder, a Philadelphia native who teaches film at George Washington University, will discuss those questions in a panel discussion following the Oct. 26 screening. (It also screens at noon Monday at the Ritz East.)
And to celebrate its 20th anniversary, Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia - with Tom Hanks as a gay man with AIDS, and Denzel Washington as the lawyer who represents him in an unfair-termination suit - will get a screening. Oscar-winning director Demme will be at the Prince Theater Tuesday night to introduce and talk about his film.
In the "Greater Filmadelphia" section along with Let the Fire Burn: Tommy Oliver's 1982, a drama starring Hill Harper and Sharon Leal about the crack epidemic that hit Philly hard in the early '80s, and that played especially well at the Toronto Film Festival last month.
There are kid-friendly films ( Ernest & Celestine, Ragnarok, The Rocket, The Short Game) and music-driven films ( Grand Piano, The Great Hip Hop Hoax, Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction - yes, the character actor sings!).
Like anything as sprawling and multitentacled as a film festival, inevitably there will be schedule changes, problems, surprise adds. After the PFF program guides were printed up, Bruce Dern - who spent a few years here at Penn and was slated to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award - bowed out. Instead, the screening of Nebraska was moved to a new night (Monday) and director Payne and Dern's exceptionally able costar, Will Forte (he plays Dern's character's hard-pressed younger son), will be on hand to present the film and Q&A it afterward.
Serious festgoers already know the drill (the really serious have blocked out their vacation days and purchased "badges" that get them access to screenings, parties, etc.): Check the PFF website, Twitter feeds, and Facebook posts, keep an ear out for announcements about free screenings and last-minute additions (and the occasional subtraction), and allow time for your mad dashes from the Ritzes in Old City to the Cinemark (also known as the Rave) in University City, and all screens in between.
Steven Rea's Festival Picks
12 Years a Slave
Blue Is the Warmest Color
Days of Heaven (“From the Vaults”)
Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction
Let the Fire Burn
Like Father, Like Son
Oct. 17-27 in venues across town. Main theaters: Cinemark, 4012 Walnut St.; Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut St.; Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center, 300 S. Broad St.; Ritz Bourse, 400 Ranstead St.; and Ritz East, 125 S. Second St.
Ticket information and schedule updates at www.filmadelphia.org/festival, on Facebook at philafilmsociety, and Twitter, @phillyfilmsoc. For in-person ticket sales, the PFF main box office is in the Condo Shop, 1425 Locust St. Phone: 267-908-4733.