Despite occasional rain, the price of gas, the grounding of Aloha Airlines, the existence of Netflix, gloomy feelings about the island economy in general — and don’t even start about the chairs — the Maui Film Festival completed its ninth year at Wailea and the Maui Arts & Cultural Center last weekend on a high note.
Overall attendance was close to the previous year’s 20,000, festival director Barry Rivers reported. Although the numbers were down at the festival’s signature Celestial Cinema on the Wailea Golf Course, it was up in other Wailea venues like the Maui Skydome and the SandDance Theater. And various screenings at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater and McCoy Studio Theater also added to the grand total.
“Given the state of the economy, we’re sort of pleased all around,” Barry said on Tuesday.
Barry’s wife — and festival co-director — Stella Rivers echoed the sense of satisfaction, and relief.
“We’re feeling really good about the synergistic vibe to it,” she said of this year’s event.
Reviews from attendees were positive. A good time was had by most at this unique celebration of cinema, where Hollywood luminaries share screen time with less fortunate citizens of the world, and dreams of a more compassionate, healthier and saner planet trump the movie industry’s more usual urge to blow things up.
Paparazzi are all but unknown in the laid-back setting, which is more about everyone getting their feet wet … in any number of ways.
Of the almost 100 films on the program, “Choke,” a dramedy about sexual addiction, won the award for best narrative feature.
“The Human Experience,” following a band of brothers from New York to Peru and Ghana took the prize for best documentary feature and “Summerhood,” director Jacob Medjuck’s irreverent revery about summer camp, was the best comedy feature.
The prize for best narrative feature, world cinema, went to the Jordanian feature, “Captain Abu Raed,” about an airport janitor mistaken for a pilot by the children in his neighborhood. “War Child,” about Emmaneul Jal, a Sudanese child soldier who has become an international hip-hop star, won for best documentary feature, world cinema.
“The Fall,” an adult fable shot in 24 countries around the world, won the prize for best cinematography, while “The Great Buck Howard,” featuring John Malkovich as a has-been mentalist, co-starring with Colin Hanks and his dad, Tom, tied with “Bottle Shock,” a dramatic comedy about the California wine industry in the 1970s, for the best ensemble cast prize.
“Hawaiian Starlight, a mind-expanding blend of astronomical images from the Mauna Kea observatory set to a symphonic score, was deemed best experimental film. The green cinema award was shared by “The Humpback Code,” a documentary shot off Maui unraveling the mysteries of the songs of humpback whales; and “Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai,” a biography of the environmentalist who was the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize.
“Chief” won for best narrative short, “Guardians of the Sea was best documentary short and “Hot Dog” took the animation prize.
This year’s cast of honorees — “luminaries” as opposed to celebrities in festival parlance —was, by general agreement, not only the strongest, but the nicest. Pierce Brosnan, Virginia Madsen and Dennis Quaid accepted their awards at a gala reception Thursday, while Felicity Huffman was presented hers the following evening, accompanied by a showing of her new film “Phoebe in Wonderland,” that packed the Maui Skydome. She was accompanied by her husband, actor William H. Macy,” whose new comedy, “The Deal,” also screened.
In a variety of interviews, the honorees conveyed their own sense of being working actors as opposed to stars. Behind their Oscar and Golden Globe nominations and box office triumphs were years of hard work. Under the star shine was humility; they all seemed genuinely honored, not to mention, happy to be here.
Along with the Hollywood glam came glimpses of the creative process from makers of the “smaller” films dotting the festival’s schedule. They shared the experiences of making their films — creative blends of heart, insight and maxed-out credit cards, which often had a transforming effect on the filmmakers themselves — in four lively panel discussions during the day Saturday.
More than any single film, or star, or party, or epiphany glimpsed in the night-sky stars twinkling over the majestic Celestial Cinema screen, the Maui Film Festival was, once again, about the way all the parts fit together.
On her first visit to the Celestial Cinema, Navigator Award winner Madsen “got it.”
“It just got you in a frame of mind that all things are possible,” she said. “This festival is really about creativity.”
And the bulk of that creativity belongs to the festival’s founder, director and energy source, Barry Rivers.
One of his staff members was going to make a T-shirt for him this year saying, “I’ll talk slower if you think faster.”
Having been there from the start — actually from before the start of this unique festival — I still marvel at the way it all works, from the buses running on time to the exhilarating flights of pure imagination shooting across the screens.
It all sprang from one imagination. It’s a textbook example of “the vision thing.”
I picture the inside of Barry’s head like a pinball machine. A lit-up hula girl dances on the backboard as Barry’s ideas careen back and forth off the rails at warp speed, bouncing from the beach to the volcano, from the sand to the stars.
“I don’t even know how we do it,” he concluded Tuesday. “It’s because we have a bunch of volunteers who care about it as much as we do.”
• Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com.