In the recent past, this panel was press-criticized for including directors of interesting films (animation) but not truly newsworthy (Academy nominations). At first glance, this year’s model seems similarly obscure, with nary a first-stringer on board.
But that would be a very superficial reckoning since the 2014 panel included an Academy-nominated animation film by the first woman ever to direct a Disney fairytale musical, namely Jennifer Lee of Frozen (which she also wrote). It was also the first festival appearance of a director most people feel directly inherited mojo from Federico Fellini, Paolo (The Great Beauty) Sorrentino; a Santa Barbara-born documentarian who was also Academy-nominated, Morgan Neville for 20 Feet from Stardom. Top it all off, there was Joshua Oppenheimer of The Act of Killing, which certainly was the most positively disturbing film made in the last decade. Oh, and the same film, about political mass murderers in Indonesia, happened to be Academy nominated too.
Few sparks flew at this seemingly combustible blend of unlike elements that also included Felix van Groenegen, who made Broken Circle Breakdown, a festival favorite, and mostly that was because moderator Scott Feinberg likably did his very best to keep things rolling in the new No-comments-from-the audience format. He mostly succeeded despite some bumps. It was very difficult to get the scornful-eyed Sorrentino to respond fluidly, partly because he sometimes needed a translator, but also because he came loaded with European auteur attitude. Understandably, Sorrentino could not summon anecdotes to respond to some of the questions, which did border on the goofy. (“What is the Great Beauty?” asked Feinberg, believe it or not.) He often looked heavy-lidded and on the verge of exasperation. On the other hand, there was Oppenheimer, who told long, swooping tales fraught with danger and intricately-reasoned responses to questions about morality in a genocidal environment. Each of his answers ended in wild applause from the audience.
People did love hearing about the backup singers. “Just because you’re not a star, doesn’t mean you’re not a diva,” said Neville, whose father owned a famous rare book store about four blocks from the Lobero not long ago. He also claimed his was the most “prayed-over movie” of the year.
But the unsung hero of the afternoon was Lee who was asked how it felt to be the first Disney woman director and wasn’t it part now of a drive to be more inclusive? “I didn’t know I was the first woman until the press told me,” she said. “It’s a need and not a drive.”