- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 14, 2005

Opening today, the 19th edition of the Washington D.C. International Film Festival has about 80 features from three dozen countries to offer loyal art-house patrons with at least 10 days of good will and curiosity to spare.

It will be difficult to duplicate the high points of last year’s selections, which were elevated by three classics: “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring” from Korea, “Twilight Samurai” from Japan and “The Story of the Weeping Camel” from Mongolia. Few festivals luck into even a single movie as distinguished as this trio, so the film fest D.C. cup ran generously over in 2004.

Last year’s likable or watchable items included the wistful “Valentin” from Argentina, Guy Maddin’s inimitably screwball “The Saddest Music in the World,” Morgan Spurlock’s eminently exploitable “Super Size Me,” the admirable folk music compilation “Bluegrass Journey” and Stephen Fry’s “Bright Young Things,” a diverting movie version of Evelyn Waugh’s “Vile Bodies.”

There was even a terminally droll brainstorm that may still be defying cult classic status: Jean Michel Roux’s mock documentary “Investigation Into the Invisible World,” which went around Iceland observing supernatural nut cases. Having screened about a tenth of the 2005 entries, I regret to say I haven’t found anything to compare with the previous luck of the draw.

One approach to the cinematic potluck of a festival when you’re not sure which attractions, if any, are worth sampling is to trust the names that have a proven track record.

In the case of Francois Ozon, that record is still relatively fresh: “Under the Sand,” “8 Women” and “Swimming Pool.” His most recent feature, “5x2,” a marital chronicle with a reverse chronology, will be shown tonight and Sunday at the Regal Gallery Place.

In the case of John Irvin, the strongest credits date back a generation, when he directed “Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy,” “The Dogs of War” and “Hamburger Hill.” Nevertheless, Mr. Irvin’s “The Boys and Girl from County Clare,” a double-take title that alludes to young people in Liverpool, circa 1960, seems worth a bet when it appears next weekend at the Cineplex Odeon Wisconsin Avenue.

Another approach to dealing with festival unknowns is to favor the vintage selections. The principal revivals scheduled for the festival are a late German silent feature, Joe May’s “Asphalt,” circa 1929; and a vintage Indian costume musical extravaganza, “Mughal-e-Azam,” a three-hour epic that dates from 1960.

At some point the latter was colorized for video release, and it was an imperfect screener of this sort that I sampled. There’s no telling what the theatrical restoration is likely to disclose, but the film festival purports to have a color print on hand for tomorrow’s showing at the Avalon.

The festival seems to have suspended a reliable sub-series called “Global Rhythms,” which usually found intriguing musicians or musical topics among the documentary output of any given year. “Morning Raga,” an Indian film about professional musicians, would have been a qualifier.

Two American documentary entries also would have fit the trusty “Global Rhythms” framework: “The Last of the First,” a celebration of elderly jazz musicians organized as the Harlem Blues & Jazz Band in the late 1990s; and “Miles Electric,” a sometimes maddening backward glance at the members of the Miles Davis ensemble when invited to a rock festival on the Isle of Wight in the summer of 1970. The band’s complete 38-minute gig on Wight concludes the film, making preposterous demands on both musical and historical curiosity.

Perhaps inspired by the strong Asian contingent of a year ago, the film fest has subcontracted a couple of surveys, “China’s New Wave” and “Panorama of Indian Cinema,” to guest programmers.

A belated competitive category has also been established. Called the Capital Focus Award, it will be confined to eight of the entries, including “Last of the First,” with a cash award reserved for the winner. The festival will also continue its annual poll to determine the audience favorite.

The Goethe-Institut will host three programs in a four-part historical series, “Selling Democracy,” a compilation of propaganda films commissioned during the Marshall Plan. A fourth program is scheduled for this evening at the Regal Gallery Place.

Perhaps the single most eloquent artifact is an animated polemic, “Without Fear,” which is part of the final program, Monday at 7 p.m. at Goethe-Institut. Though British-made and clearly evocative of the postwar period of the late 1940s, it could serve as a useful guide for those who need to articulate a simple but persuasive argument for democratic ideals in the present.

EVENT: 19th annual Washington D.C. International Film Festival

WHEN: Today through April 24

WHERE: Principal sites are the Avalon, Landmark E Street Cinema, Loews Cineplex Odeon Wisconsin Avenue and Regal Gallery Place; additional locations include the Goethe-Institut, the Lincoln and the National Gallery of Art.

TICKETS: Most programs are priced at $9. The closing night program is $15. Advance tickets may be purchased through Tickets.com or by calling 703/218-6500.

PHONE: 202/628-FILM

WEB SITE: www.filmfestdc.org

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