Hill Country FF 2014: Shorts, More Shorts and Sneaky Pink Drinks

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HCFF 2014

This was my third year attending the Hill Country Film Festival in Fredericksburg. I feel like I've got it down to a science. I have a B&NB I like (kitchen, reliable wireless), I can drive to the Hangar Hotel at night without ending up halfway to Kerrville, I even know the least chilly place to sit in the Steve W. Shepherd Theater (I'm not telling). Staff and volunteers know me by name although honestly, I suspect they know most of the badgeholders by name. They are sharp and friendly that way.

I did change things around a bit by arriving in town on Thursday evening instead of making the mad rush on Friday morning to get there for the first film I wanted to see. I walked up to get my badge at 6 pm and found myself in the middle of a party. And that's HCFF all over.

If you've ever read my dispatches from other film festivals, you know I am not a party person. I'd rather watch more movies. But there's a difference between a giant party that 3,000 attendees have been invited to, usually in a space that accommodates 50, at the same time as a fascinating movie -- and a small party after screening hours in a not-terribly-loud bar where the fest director gives you free drink tickets and kindly introduces you to Texas filmmakers. Who offer you pizza.

And then there's the Filmmakers Lounge, open to badgeholders between screenings. Tito's Vodka was a sponsor so the sneaky pink drinks were back, plus wines from several local wineries, plus all manner of snacks, as you can see below.

Hope you like snacks

Thursday night's selection was a screening of Bernie (which was oddly prescient, considering this week's news). While I would have loved watching the movie with a Texas audience (especially the Sonny Carl Davis bit), I decided to skip it in favor of getting my B&NB key, settling in, and resting before the party.

I know you want me to talk about actual movies and not mundane details, but I have to let you know that the Fredericksburg HEB has the most gigantic wall of ice cream I have ever seen in any grocery. Four or five stand-up freezers were stacked with any kind of ice cream you would want, plus another endcap freezer on a nearby aisle. It was extremely impressive.

The joke is that the first movie I saw in Fredericksburg was actually Bachelor Mother. (I know Elizabeth will appreciate this.) I came home from the party around 11 and was checking email, turned on the TV, and there it was on TCM. Couldn't resist.

My first official HCFF screening, on Friday morning, was a block of shorts. HCFF had stellar shorts programming this year, and a number of the films were from Texas. In fact, I watched two blocks of shorts that day and two more on Saturday, for a grand total of 28 short films. Wow, I can finally say I saw more than 30 films at a festival, like a proper film geek.

Here are some highlights from the shorts I saw:

  • The Calm Before -- Austin filmmaker Rupert-Anthony Ortiz, whose short Lessons in Life #3 played HCFF 2013, returns with a simple but moving story about "bad things happening to good people." It features an excellent performance from Liz Tabish, a filmmaker herself.
  • Cootie Contagion -- There's a reason why this short from Florida won the audience and jury awards for shorts at HCFF. It was broadly funny and endearing, about a middle-school boy who is at risk for catching the dreaded cooties when a girl he likes is assigned as his lab partner.
  • Endeavour -- This very cute short about a space-crazed and perhaps love-addled boy was shot in Arlington, Texas. (It'd go nicely with local filmmaker David Fabelo's short Do Over.)
  • Fool's Day -- The only (very minor) flaw in programming I noticed at HCFF was that this short should have been programmed last in its block, because it took a few minutes for the audience to recuperate from shock and hysterical laughter, making it harder to get into the dramatic film after it. Elementary-school kids decide to spike their teacher's coffee with all manner of crazy things and it all goes terribly, terribly, hilariously wrong. My notes on this were simply "Oh dear God" and "WTFing F." Fool's Day screened at Austin Film Festival last year, where it won Best Narrative Short. Trivia: Filmmaker Cody Blue Snider is musician Dee Snider's son.
  • Hotel Rendezvous -- The Austin-shot short (the Whitley building downtown) maintained a high level of suspense and tension on its own. It was screened after a short with too much voiceover, so it was pleasant to watch a film that told me the bare minimum and let me figure it all out on my own. After the screening, local filmmaker Nathan Crenshaw told us he intends this as the opening sequence in a feature about con artists who con other con artists, which I hope I'll get to see someday.
  • Love Sick Lonnie -- HCFF director Chad Mathews made this short (which screened out of competition) about a guy with "boy band fever." Mathews wrote it especially for Michael Morales, who plays the lead character, and at the Q&A he treated us to more of his hilarious boy-band stylings. Here's co-star Marcus Knox, Morales and Mathews.

HCFF 2014

  • People Food -- The short Happy Voodoo was one of my favorites of HCFF 2013, and Austin filmmaker Jenny Goddard-Garcia returned with this equally funny film. Lauren Alexander nails it in the lead as a vegan who comes up with a radical idea for alternative meat sources and starts an awareness campaign at places like the Highland Mall Farmers Market. The cast also includes Mark Reeb, whom I hadn't seen since The Overbrook Brothers (his co-star from that film, Nathan Harlan, scored Happy Voodoo). Local filmmaker Don Swaynos edited the short.
  • Static -- Filmmaker Leslie Langee went to Sundance with Debbie and shot some of the photos Debbie used in her dispatches, so I was eager to meet her -- and also see one of her shorts. Static is a moving drama in miniature about a single mom struggling with her two sons, both very different and both very much needing her in different ways. One of the boys is played by Deke Garner, from Hellion -- and like Hellion, I hope Langee expands this one into a feature so we can see more of the characters. Local composer Brian Satterwhite scored the music for Static, and attentive fans of Austin film might recognize Johnny Mars' voice briefly.
  • Where the Fireflies Die -- We don't often get to see fields of bluebonnets in a short film, so you know that scored points with the audience immediately. This is a sweet short about childhood nostalgia, about one of those idyllic summers with every childhood cliche in the book, but presented beautifully. It was shot in Crawford and Salado.
  • Where the Red Fox Lies -- Wow, this was intense. Rebekah Downs won the Best Actress award at HCFF for her portrayal of an isolated woman with complex issues, who's visited by her sister. If that sounds like standard drama, well, I've left out a major and surprising plot point. This "long short" (36 min) from Austin filmmaker Jeff Ray had a premiere at the Stateside Theater last December. Trivia: Sound mixer Clayton De Wet also worked on Static.

I'm hoping the Texas shorts will screen in Austin, and will keep you posted.

I also saw a long-ish short documentary from Bradley Beesley, Bluefin on the Line, which I'll write about later along with some features. Stay tuned.

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