A Decade of HIFF

by Evelyn J. Mocbeichel

We have attended more than a decade of Hampton International Film Festivals (HIFF) and the selections have featured a wide range of topics and genres. Besides American films, HIFF includes international movies that add to the well-rounded scope of offerings. Naturally, impossible to list all of the wonderful films viewed over the years, I can start with some of our favorites.  They are listed by the year shown at HIFF and a summary of the film. Now that many of us are spending more time at home, it is possible to search for these films via download or streaming sites, Netflix, or even at a local library. Many libraries now offer curbside pick up for both books and DVDs.


Arn, The Knight TemplarThis was produced in Sweden and boasts being the “most expensive Scandinavian film production in history.” It’s an epic film, complete with everything needed to be a blockbuster hit. Jaokim Natterqvist, plays Arn, the young Knight Templar trained to serve his country and fought in the 12th century crusades.  Banned from his country because of the love he shared with a young maiden, this historically based film combines love, battle, compassion, greed and lust, winning over both male and female audiences because of its powerful story. With soulful eyes and compassion in every scene, I thought Natterqvist was destined to become as well known in this country as he is throughout Europe. This one topped our list of must-see films and recommended because of its actors, cinematography, musical score and the sweeping scope of its breathing taking scenes.

Dunya and Desie – Switching to a much lighter note, but equally as popular with HIFF voting viewers that year was the delightful, “Dunya and Desie” a movie from the Netherlands.  Based on a television series that ran eight years, the adventures of these two young friends was then made into a feature film.  The eighteen-year-old girls come from two completely different backgrounds.  Dunya, a Moroccan girl, played by Maryann Hassouni comes from a Muslim family, while Desie, (Eva van de Wijdeven) is an outgoing Dutch girl, somewhat on the “loose” side. A circumstance in each of their lives leads them to a journey from the Netherlands to Morocco and the film is about the encounters they face and the life choices they must make. Humorous, heart wrenching, serious, dramatic and inspirational all at once, the audience enjoyment could easily be felt as they excited this warm-hearted production that is of our time.


During the summer before the autumn HIFF starts, there is a SummerDoc series presented, one in June, July, and August. By far one of the most entertaining ones we’ve seen each summer has to be Billy Joel’s, The Last Play at Shea. First thinking is was a film about baseball, we were pleasantly surprised at the subject matter, which centered around concerts at the stadium. The Last Play At Shea, weaves interviews with players and performers with exclusive concert footage, featuring special guests Paul McCartney, Tony Bennett, Garth Brooks, John Mayer and Roger Daltrey, among others.  Long time Joel friend and former band mate, Jon Small, directed the concert footage, filmed at each of Joel’s sold out Shea Stadium Shows.  The two shows staged in July 2008 was before a combined 110,000 fans, were the last performances ever to play the historic stadium. It was a wonderful, musical trip down memory lane.


What type of films are your favorites? Some people like realism, gritty films that show a side of life they are familiar with or on the opposite scale, may never be a part of in their lifetime.  Some want escapism and “happy” films that offer a twist or an unpredictable ending or foreign films with subtitles and a language they speak.  Very often we gravitate towards foreign films and back in 2011 was no exception.  The Fifth Heaven (Israel) was a sensitive coming of age drama during the last days of WWII as a 13-year-old is abandoned by her father to an orphanage for Jewish girls in Palestine.  Well-acted, excellent cinematography and an appealing story that draws you to the characters.  The other foreign film that caught our attention was called Hell. Actually, a play on words, the German word for light is hell, but the movie, a stark, post- apocalyptic thriller was really a “hell” for its characters when the sun turned earth into a scorched world where food and water are scarce. Famed German actress Hannah Herzsprung, who has been at HIFF before was the lead. The audience was treated to a Q&A with the personable, young director, Tim Fehlbaum, who talked to the audience before the screening and honestly expressed how excited he was to be in the Hamptons with the first film he directed.

The closing film that year was Descendants, starring George Clooney.  Rarely do I laugh out loud during a film, but Mr. Clooney’s dead pan expressions and one-liners in this comedy/drama were so true to life and spot on, it was impossible not to!  A young co-star, Shailene Woodley, was the perfect foil as Clooney’s pouty teenage daughter. This film has been on television several times already and still enjoyable reviewing. We all know how Shailene Woodley’s career has soared since she was in this film!


Rarely seen as an entry in film festivals, a Latvian film was showcased as a foreign film inclusion. Mother, I Love You, a film by Janis Nords; director/screenwriter was a sensitive story of a young boy living with his single mother, a hard-working doctor.  The boy wants to make his mother proud of his musical accomplishments, but his mischievous side lands him in trouble at school.  The minor infraction spins out of control and his plight deepens.  This is Nords’ second film and Latvia’s Oscar entry.  Filmed in Riga, try to see it!  Always impressed on what stories can be told in a “short”, we try to include several during HIFF.  Listed in the “Connections” category our favorite that year was Across Grace Alley, written and directed by Ralph Macchio, famed actor who starred in The Karate Kid and My Cousin Vinny among his long list of credits. This story of a young boy, whose parents are going through a divorce, visits his grandmother for the week and becomes infatuated with a beautiful neighbor he sees through his window. How they “connect” draws the viewer instantly.

A full-length feature that topped our list that year was Nebraska, starring Bruce Dern. Dern plays an elderly curmudgeon who thinks he won a million dollars when he receives one of those letters soliciting magazine subscriptions. His convinces his down and out son to take the cross-country road trip to “collect the prize money” and the film carries viewers on a journey of tenderness and comedic side notes.  It has been a very long time since we have laughed out loud many times in a movie and so did much of the audience. I believe this one has been on TV, too. Another feature film that year was Labor Day, starring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin, another pick that we thoroughly enjoyed. A young boy struggles to be the man of the house while living with his divorced mom that has a phobia about leaving the house except to do monthly shopping. On one such trip escaped convict, Josh Brolin forces them to take him to their house to hide from police. How the relationships develop turns into a touching story about each filling a need in their lives.


St. Vincent, starring Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy and the very talented, adorable child actor Jaeden Lieberher.  This was a semi-serious, “dramedy” as McCarthy plays a harried, single mom who moves with her 12-year-old son, Oliver, to a new home in Brooklyn. Forced to work long hours, she has no choice but to leave Oliver in the care of their new neighbor, Vincent (Murray), a retired curmudgeon with a penchant for alcohol and gambling. Together with Daka (Naomi Watts), a pregnant stripper, Vincent brings Oliver along on his daily routine: the racetrack, a strip club, and the local dive bar. An odd friendship soon blossoms between the improbable pair in this charming comedy.  Murray was excellent and believable in the role, and it seemed as if it were written for him.

Homesman, stars the powerful duo of Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones. Jones also directed the film. The Homesman is based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize-nominee Glendon Swarthout. When three women living on the edge of the American frontier are driven to the brink, the task of saving them from their surroundings falls to the pious, independent-minded Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank). Transporting the women by covered wagon to Iowa, she soon realizes just how daunting the journey will be, and employs a feisty low-life drifter, George Biggs (Jones), to join her. The unlikely pair and the three women head east, where a waiting minister and his wife (Meryl Streep) have offered to take the women in.  But the group first must traverse the harsh Nebraska Territories marked by stark beauty, psychological peril and constant threat.  This is not your typical western, but one that delves deeper into the lives and harsh realities of life in the early, untamed old west.  Swank continues her superior abilities to adapt to the different character roles she accepts and makes them totally believable and sympathetic. She is one of the most talented and versatile, gifted actors of her age group in films today and this role proves it again.

Learning to Drive made its US premiere in 2014. Directed by Isabel Coixet, it is about a woman whose husband of 20 years walks out on her. Wendy Shields (Patricia Clarkson) watches her comfortable life crumble overnight. Struggling to reclaim her independence in New York City, she hits a unique roadblock, she never learned to drive. Her life is forever changed when she meets Darwan (Ben Kingsley), a driving instructor and part-time cab driver on the brink of an arranged marriage. In each other’s company, Wendy and Darwan find the courage to ask for directions, the strength to move forward, and a friendship for the ride. The film was the runner-up for the People’s Choice Audience Award at the Toronto International Film Festival.  We went to see this film because of Sir Ben Kingsley, one of our favorite actors, that never disappoints in a role.  This film blends the life struggles of two cultures and characters going through their own crisis at the same time.


This was the year for several superior global entries we enjoyed. Brooklyn – This film was both deeply engrossing and cinematically beautiful, directed by John Crowley. From Ireland/UK/Canada it is the story of a young girl, Eilis, (Saoirse Ronan) leaving her widowed mother and older sister in Ireland in the 1950’s and heading to her American dream. She arrives in Brooklyn and stays at a boarding house arranged by her kindly parish priest. Eilis finds work in an upscale department store, enrolls in night classes, but is lonely for home. That is until she meets Tony, a young Italian man. An unexpected tragedy forces Eilis to return home and the story line leaves viewers on the edge of their seats to see if she decides to stay in Ireland or return to Tony who loves her and constantly writes love letters to say he is waiting. When the movie ended, the audience applause was unanimous in its approval. Also appearing on television watch out for it.

He Named Me Malala – This documentary was made in the USA and is about the life of Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani girl who is the youngest Noble Peace Prize recipient.  The horrific shooting in 2012 by Taliban attackers and long recuperation process of this advocate for education for women and children’s rights was only part of her story. Directed by Davis Guggenheim, the film delves into her family, that now live in England, and how she combines school and touring the world for her cause. Her father is a strong influence on Malala’s life and their closeness and bond is a joy to behold. The entire world rallied around her and after her amazing recovery she formed the Malala Fund to empower girls worldwide by facilitating access to education with the belief that “one child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.” This documentary was more than a remake of the news headlines, it was a warm storytelling and inside look of this 15-year-old and her courage, sense of humor and wonderful family. Some of the best moments of the film were when she was at home, just being a young teenager. Don’t miss this one!

Sherpa – This documentary was my husband’s favorite. It is a combined Australia/Nepal made movie. If you have never heard of or wondered what the Sherpa population goes through as guides on Mt. Everest, this film gives a harrowing, insiders peek. Watching this film and the scary climbing involved assured me, this challenge will never be on my bucket list! Because of a 14,000-ton block of ice that barreled down the mountain in April 2014, 16 Sherpa guides were killed.  In this worst tragedy on the mountain, the other Sherpa guides united to fight for respect and better working conditions as their share of profits are not proportional to the risk and work they do. The story shows the tourist adventures, some paying as much as $75,000 a person for the two-month climb and what dangers await both climbers and guides. Director/Screenwriter, Jennifer Peedom captures the intenseness of the climb, the tedious and precarious routes the Sherpa guides make to carry equipment, food and supplies for the tourists for the trip’s duration. Photography is breathtaking as is the footage of the dangers on the mountain. Viewers are drawn into the Sherpa life as the film shows the tiny village and those left behind as the men leave to earn enough to get the family through until the next tourists arrive on Everest.


Once again it was an international film that topped our list, with an unexpected twist. Capturing our interest was GLORY, (“Slava”) which made its US premiere and was a combined production of Bulgaria and Greece. It’s “the story of a poor railway worker whose world is turned upside down when he finds a huge pile of cash abandoned on the tracks. He decides to do the honorable thing and turn it over the police, but a careless government propaganda team eager to capitalize on the story sends his life spinning out of control. Set against the backdrop of contemporary Bulgarian society, where corruption and bureaucracy are givens, GLORY is a mysterious journey of one man’s race against time to expose the truth and regain his dignity.” Starring Margita Gosheva and Stefan Denolyubo this simple story line quickly turned into a powerful, edge of your seat thriller waiting for the next turn in this seemingly uncomplicated story. The ending left the audience discussing which way they thought the story turned, which was equal to any Hitchcock mystery we have seen


With more than one hundred fifty films and shorts to pick from this year, which to see becomes more difficult. Without a doubt, our best pick that year was a documentary about the life of Itzhak Perlman, the famed violinist. Simply called Itzhak, it was the Opening Night film. The life story of this “greatest living violinists” captured the audience from the start and high praise is certainly deserved for Director/Producer Alison Chernick for this accomplishment. The story is told with vintage photographs, film clips and current interviews of Mr. Perlman and his wife, Toby, in their New York City apt.  She is also an accomplished violinist and they met when both attended violin camp as teens one summer.  Itzhak was born in Tel Aviv to parents that were natives of Poland. The family moved to the United States when he was a boy of ten so he could study at Julliard. Having contracted polio when he was three, it was a difficult start that he overcame when his musical genius began to be recognized. Throughout the film viewers saw and heard the fantastic personality of Perlman shine through despite the hardship of his early life and illness. Particularly humorous was his descriptions of the street signs as he visited Tel Aviv during the filming this documentary.  Presented by The American Masters series on PBS stations, watch out for repeat broadcast dates so you don’t miss it or check On Demand!  At the end of the film, the audience applauded enthusiastically, which was well deserved. Often there is a Q & A after the film where someone involved in the making of it comes on stage and chats with a moderator. The Director, Chernick, and Toby Perlman came on stage after the film for a few moments to talk. Then the evening’s surprise, Itzhak Perlman came on stage. He was greeted with thunderous applause and a standing ovation! The excited continued as eight young adult students from his music camp came on stage to play with Mr. Perlman, thrilling the audience even more. It was a fantastic, outstanding Opening Night film made even more special by Mr. Perlman’s appearance!

Christopher Robin  Goodbye Christopher Robin is the full title of the life story of the author A.A. Milne. Directed by Simon Curtis, this was a sensitive portrayal of the little boy that was the feature character in the Winnie the Pooh book series. Milne was inspired to write his stories after seeing his only child playing with his stuffed animals and using his imagination to keep him company.  The opening scenes of the film were beautifully photographed and instantly the quality of the film is recognized within minutes and carried throughout its entirety. What one thinks before viewing this film is how happy Christopher’s life must have been featured in a world-famous book series.  Viewers are quickly immersed in Christopher’s life and seeing how fame was not something we’d come to envy. This is not a children’s movie or whimsical tale. Newcomer Will Tilson (Christopher Robin) is absolutely adorable and his dimpled smile melts your heart. The strong performances by Domhall Gleeson, as A.A. Milne, and Margot Robbie as Christopher’s mother, complete this sensitive, enchanting and touching story.


When we attend HIFF we try to include a Scandinavian film or two, and we did so again this year. Usually these films have complex plots, hard to guess endings and characters that are thought provoking. The characters either conjure sympathy for them or have the viewer despise the antics they portray and root for the underdog. In 2018, Border (Grans) a Swedish/Denmark contribution provided all of this and more! (Viewer advance notice, there are some gritty scenes in this somewhat bizarre and unconventional film.) The story was about a reclusive customs border officer and a unique talent she had for uncovering those travelers carrying illegal substances. One day a mysterious man comes through her border station and the story travels in a direction the audience had no way of suspecting! This film won a prize at Cannes and was Sweden’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. The write up describes it as “straddling the line between romance, fantasy and horror as the lead actor, the border guard, struggles to find her place in the world”. The two actors, Eva Melander and Eero Milonoff won the HIFF best actor award for this film. We’ve never seen a film like this before and as the audiences exited the theatre all were smiling, shaking their heads, yet saying, “I never expected that, or this was something totally different from what I thought it was about!” We often mention this film when recommending abstract, strange films to friends.

A Private War, starring Rosamund Pike, portraying a real-life war correspondent, photojournalist Marie Colvin.  This film showed what it’s like being in a war-torn area and the dangers journalists put themselves through to bring a story to the world, “giving a voice to the voiceless”. Watching how these journalists live, the harrowing, on the edge of life and death scenarios they go through is unbelievable and at times hard to watch. When viewing nightly TV news, it’s difficult to imagine the environment a reporter faces being in a dangerous conflict zone to capture a story.


Supported by the Suffolk County Film Commission, a shorts program of three films by local talent was offered under the heading, Views from Long Island Showcase. Two of the films were three minutes long and the other 40 minutes. Imagine being able to tell a story in just three minutes?  The longest of the three entries, Waterproof, was an awe- inspiring documentary highlighting how local residents started a water safety program years ago throughout the Hamptons. Brought on by a tragic drowning years early, the film detailed the efforts of “Big John” and Johnny Jr. Ryan as they developed a lifeguard training program. This father-son dynamic team has worked for water safety for decades through Hampton Lifeguard Training programs, junior lifeguard training and by Volunteer Ocean Rescue Squad. Big John has been doing this for over six decades and shows no signs of stopping as they work to ensure the safety of locals and tourists alike at the eastern end of Long Island. After seeing this vitally important water safety film I truly believe it should be shown throughout the country to any community that is near or surrounded by water. The training, dedication and caring by both father and son deserves all the praise that can be given to these two amazing men and those they’ve trained over the years.

The Aeronauts – This film stood out for a multitude of reasons. The Aeronauts teamed up again two stars, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones that have amazing on screen, believable chemistry together. (In The Theory of Everything, Redmayne played the famous physicist Stephen Hawking and Ms. Jones his wife.) Based on real life adventurers, Redmayne portrays scientist, James Glaisher and Jones, a dare devil woman pilot, Amelia Wren. The majority of filming takes place in a real hot air balloon where the onscreen characters “find themselves in an epic fight for survival while attempting to make discoveries in a hot air balloon.” Beautifully photographed, this adventure film starts in 1860’s, the Victorian age, where scientist Glaisher wants to prove that flying into the stratosphere might be a way to predict weather forecasts that would aide in safe ship navigation, crop planting and a host of other applications. As a member of the Association for the Advancement of Science he wanted to fly and investigate the upper atmosphere, Glaisher embarked on a journey not every man would dare to endeavor. Back then this idea was totally foreign to his academic colleagues that one would think they could “know when rain would fall”. At the time this fantastic voyage was embarked upon airplanes had not even been invented.  Mind you, this flight was done without any of the equipment pilots have today that guard against oxygen deprivation at those heights. What happens when Glaisher, a noted astronomer and meteorologist and aeronaut, takes flight with young, wealthy widow, Amelia Wren, and they soar higher above earth than ever accomplished before? Several edge of your seat moments, fantastic acting and terrific photography makes this a film not to miss.