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Philadelphia Film Festival Recap: Star-studded celluloid assault on the City of Brotherly Love

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Psychotic Ballerina’s, daring rock climbers, feuding lovers populate this year’s fest

Now that the 19th Annual Philadelphia Film Festival  has commenced with the stirring drama 127 Hours, the time has come to reflect on what has been a fairly eclectic collection of films, big and small. Here are some of the highlights that marked the festival this time around.

On the more thrilling end of the spectrum, Darren Aronofsky’s  ballet nightmare 'Black Swan' starring Natalie Portman. Photo: Fox SearchlightBlack Swan got the audiences’ blood flowing on opening night, and perhaps also began Oscar talk for Natalie Portman’s performance in the film as a hallucinogenic ballet dancer. Interestingly enough, the closing film of the festival (127) also featured some harrowing and horrific moments.That film chronicled the true story of Aron Ralston, who became trapped when a large boulder fell on him, crushing his arm.

David Schwimmer, best known as Ross on Friends, once again proved his directorial abilities were no fluke with that cyber thriller Trust. The adept film featured Catherine Keener and Clive Owen as parents of a daughter who is sexually assaulted via someone she met on the Internet. Finally, M. Night Shyamalan was on hand for the 10th anniversary celebration of Unbreakable, the hyped follow up to his Oscar nominated Sixth Sense.

On the drama front, Kristen Stewart continued to show her unexpected range in the indie film Welcome to the Rileys, in which she plays a prostitute. James Gandolfini plays a man who befriends the girl and attempts to stabilize her. The performances are great, but the drama though well intentioned, falls short. Doug Liman, the mastermind behind The Bourne Identity  series, returns with Fair Game, accompanied by A-listers Naomi Watts and Sean Penn. The dramatic film is a showcase of a different kind for Lyman, used to splashy special effects and popcorn action flicks as of late. The film isn’t perfect (and feels out of place at a festival), but it’s well crafted, acted, and suspenseful.

Night Catches Us, a film that takes place during the black power movement of the 70’s, sported a red carpet premiere with cast and crew including star Kerry Washington. Rounded out the top pics, Conviction, based, on a true story, follows Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank), as she embarks on a multiple year journey to free her brother from jail. The film is conventional, standard drama turned on its head by the outstanding Swank, who gives the audience reason to care.

Then there was the lighter fare. Several comedies managed to use Philadelphia for their primary filming location, which was very enticing. It would have been even better if these films were any good. Those wondering if Jennifer Love Hewitt’s  acting abilities have improved since Party of Five needn’t rack their brains; She still doesn’t have it. Hewitt top lined the wannabe be quirky (in reality terribly written) Café, a film about fate and the workings of the divine creator up above.

 If anything, The Best and The Brightest, a screwball comedy attempting to pass Philadelphia off as New York (HA!), proves that Neil Patrick Harris  has quite a bit of charisma and screen presence. He almost saves this farce, which is irritating instead of zany, offensive instead of outrageous. Perhaps one of the most interesting entries was I Love you Phillip Morris, a strange, crude slapstick romantic comedy featuring Jim Carrey  and Ewan Mcgregor as lovers. The film has bounced just about all over the place, unable to find studio support due to the explicit content. The movie, which is based on a true story, looks to open in limited release come this December.

Overall, the festival continues to mature beautifully, even in its 19th year. The films were of the highest profile to date, the guest stars were big, and the galas were at their most extravagant. Kudos to the Philadelphia Film Festival for delivering a well-crafted event that pleased cinemaphiles across the tri-state area and beyond.

Contact Jim Teti at jteti@philly2philly.com

Photo: Fox Searchlight