SARASOTA — With 252 films — up 30 from last year — the 2014 Sarasota Film Festival offers local cinephiles a bigger opportunity to indulge their passion than ever before.
But with more international entries and fewer recognizable names in the casts, they may never have heard of much of what they will see.
"It's a reflection of the year that a lot of the best work may be less familiar to American audiences," said Tom Hall, SFF director and curator of the festival, which runs from April 4-13. "We always pick the movies we think are the best and sometimes that means films that don't go for the red carpet vibe. But there is some very provocative stuff."
This year's festival lineup, announced Wednesday night at a Selby Gardens kickoff party, offers 112 feature-length films — including nine in each of three juried competitions for narrative, documentary and independent movies — and 140 shorts, as well as an youth programming, a filmmakers' lounge and evening parties.
"If you go to 11 films a day, you can see everything," said Hall of the feature entries, all of which he has viewed during the past six months.
While perhaps the most high-profile celebrity in those films was recently lost to a drug overdose — the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in "God's Pocket," one of two "centerpiece" movies — Hall gave assurances that he and his staff are still in the process of locking in notables to appear during the 10-day event. He intimated one of those might be the first-time director of "God's Pocket," actor John Slattery, from "Mad Men."
"We'll definitely be having people attending," he said. "It's just a matter of who and when."
High profile actors
Opening night at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall April 4 will feature "Last Days in Vietnam," by director Rory Kennedy, whose "Ethel" was the audience favorite at the 2012 SFF.
Kennedy will attend the screening, which launches the festival's "Acts of Valor" program, a collaboration with The Patterson Foundation which will bring an array of new, classical and archival movies that examine the experience of American veterans from World War I to today.
SFF Board President Mark Famiglio, who saw the documentary at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in January, said he was "moved to tears" by its historic footage of the evacuation from Saigon during the last days of the American occupation of Vietnam.
"It really highlights the Marines incredible valor and courage in a hopeless situation," said Famiglio, who was an anti-war junior high student at that time. "There was a lot I learned and a lot of facts I had wrong."
The closing night film — on April 12 at the Sarasota Opera House — is a relationship comedy by Charlie McDowell called "The One I Love." Lauded at Sundance, it was described in a Variety review as "a pleasure to watch but a challenge to discuss without spoiling a good deal of the fun."
In addition to "God's Pocket," a dark comedy that was one of Hoffman's last acting jobs, "Ivory Tower," a documentary about college education in America, also was selected as a centerpiece film. It was directed by Andrew Rossi, whose "Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times" opened the 2011 SFF.
"If I call this a scathing indictment of the higher education system, I'm underselling it," Hall said. "I've never been so angry walking out of a movie theater."
Of the films featuring high-profile actors, "The Last of Robin Hood," about the last days of Errol Flynn, stars Dakota Fanning, Kevin Kline and Susan Sarandon; Jude Law leads the cast of "Dom Hemingway"; and Maggie Gyllenhall and Michael Fassbender star in "Frank."
The only locally produced feature is "The Lucky Six," the first project of a collaboration between the Ringling College of Art and Design and the Asolo's Conservatory for Actor Training.
The movie about a group of students who suffer repercussions after partnering on a winning lottery ticket was shot entirely in Sarasota last summer, with actors from the conservatory and a local crew.
In its 16th year, the festival has also expanded its partnerships with several community nonprofits and brought in specific films to support those organizations and their missions.
"The community partnerships are the ones that allow us to be flexible and try new things and different, fun screenings," Hall said.
That the film and video industry has begun turning away from major studios and toward Internet alternatives for distribution has impacted festival selections, Hall said. Filmmakers and distributors have begun seeing festivals as a way to make money as well as gain exposure, and are increasingly asking for, or demanding, fees for allowing their films to be screened.
The Sarasota Film Festival, with an annual budget of just under $1 million and a "conservative" financial approach, is not structured to do that, nor is that its intention, Famiglio said.
"That's not what we do and it doesn't support our mission. And we don't need to do it because the people in our community are really pretty film savvy. They understand celebrity for celebrity's sake and the distinction between that and quality film."
Hall said when it comes to festival curation, he adheres to the old real estate adage about never falling in love with a house you may ultimately not be able to afford.
"Have we walked away from films? Absolutely," he said. "But that's OK. You put together the best program you can. And I think ours definitely holds up."
2014 SARASOTA FILM FESTIVAL, April 4-13. Main screening venue and ticket sales at Hollywood 20, 1993 Main St., beginning March 13 for members and sponsors, March 14 for general sales; packages available. 366-6200;www.sarasotafilmfestival.com.