HFF unleashes art, ups star quotient

Fest mixes films with celeb-driven awards night

Touting a lineup loaded with global docs, offbeat features and genre pics, the 12th annual Hollywood Film Festival continues to uphold its reputation as an outsider fest in an insider town. While many of the films flooding prominent indie fests arrive with buyers attached, a majority of the 68 films that played at the ArcLight Wednesday through Sunday are ready for pickup.

HFF founder Carlos de Abreu has never been shy about tubthumping his adoration for social justice docs, and this year he screened “Number One With a Bullet” as one of the fest’s five nonfiction films. “Bullet” follows rappers Ice Cube, KRS-One, Mos Def and Young Buck as they pull the curtain back on gun violence in hip-hop music.

The editors of Film Threat put together this year’s horror, sci-fi and fantasy sidebar. Of particular note is Barak Epstein and Blair Rowan’s politically incorrect vampire pic, “Blood on the Highway.”

But nestled within the fest’s rundown was a small yet significant cache of headliner-driven fare. And so it has been since the fest’s beginning. Typically these eclectic titles either raise an actor’s profile among showbiz insiders or they shatter a stereotype that has come to dominate a performer’s resume.

The consistent guideline for the HFF, according to de Abreu, has been to “give emerging films a window to the Hollywood community,” particularly when they’re overlooked by other fests. But at its core, the fest champions actors.

“More than ensemble pieces, Carlos likes a movie that is anchored by a significant performance,” says Indican distrib topper Randy Hamilton, who in the past has booked Keira Knightley’s “Pure” and Rachael Leigh Cook’s “My First Wedding” at the HFF.

Should the thesp be considered “on the bubble,” the fest will then shine some wattage upon them at the fest’s Hollywood Awards. Such was the case in 2004 when Knightley was honored with HFF’s breakthrough actress award. At the time, Knightley was known Stateside for her good-girl roles in “Bend It Like Beckham” and the first “Pirates of the Caribbean,” but, two years earlier, the actress was already on the HFF radar when it unspooled the U.K. title “Pure,” in which Knightley logged a haunting performance as a pregnant crack addict.

At last year’s event, HFF showcased the actor-director-writer talents of James Franco with “Good Time Max,” and now the fest honors him for his vastly different turns in “Pineapple Express” and “Milk.”

Thesp-driven pics at this year’s HFF included the doc “Certifiably Jonathan,” about bipolar improv genius Jonathan Winters. The fest also exposed the dark side of a former sitcom actor: In “Holiday Baggage,” Barry Bostwick gets serious as an estranged husband who locks horns with his ex-wife. The real-life legal drama “The Thacker Case” catapults TV supporting actor Gabriel Mann (“Mad Men”) into bigscreen leading-man turf. And Rebecca Pidgeon steps outside David Mamet’s cool oeuvre in “The Unit” to test her melodramatic chops with “Cat City.”

“Most of the performance-driven films Carlos chooses and the breakthrough awards he lauds are to actors who are taking a turn in their career,” says Hamilton. “Carlos has a good instinct for lauding those who normally don’t win at other festivals.”


What: Hollywood Awards Gala

Where: Beverly Hilton Hotel, Beverly Hills

When: Monday, October 27