Ten days out of every year, film connoisseurs in Maine are like kids at Christmastime, reveling in the surprises that are handed down by the Maine International Film Festival. Kicking off Friday in Waterville, this year’s festival presents some of the most-anticipated indie films on the circuit, a handful of Maine-made films, a retrospective of actor Malcolm McDowell’s work as he receives the annual Mid-Life Achievement Award and also a rare opportunity for audiences to interact with filmmakers.
The latter has been crucial to MIFF’s success over 14 years. The festival brings in 50 filmmakers each year and this year’s event is no exception.
In addition to McDowell, guests will include director-producer Mike Kaplan (“Never Apologize,” featuring McDowell, “Luck, Trust & Ketchup”), actress Karen Young (“Heading South,” “Warrior Woman”) and editor Mary Lampson (“Harlan County U.S.A.,” “Trouble the Water”).
“We always say MIFF is more than just movies, it’s the opportunity to interact with filmmakers,” festival director Shannon Haines said in a recent phone interview. “To have filmmakers of this caliber joining us, and interacting with the audience — it’s just huge.”
Then, of course, there’s McDowell, whose prolific career as an actor has been meticulously whittled down to a retrospective of four films: “A Clockwork Orange,” “Never Apologize,” “Assassin of the Tsar” and “O Lucky Man!”
Quite a feat considering McDowell has well over 100 titles in his filmography.
As the festival always does with its Mid-Life Achievement Award recipients, MIFF worked with McDowell to obtain a selection of films that best represent his career, according to Ken Eisen, the festival’s programmer.
“I think we all agreed ‘O Lucky Man!’ should be shown because it’s a film that’s so attached to him, and it’s one he cares about greatly. And ‘Never Apologize’ is such a tour de force, it’s a one-man show. It’s incredible. So those seemed sort of gimmes.” As was Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.”
The fourth film, “Assassin of the Tsar,” about a patient in a mental institution who believes he assassinated Tsar Alexander in 1881, was relatively unknown to the festival staff.
“It’s something that is outside what he normally does, but shows the range of what he’s capable of doing,” Eisen said. “That was his suggestion and it’s one that we gladly embraced.”
Both Haines and Eisen noted that MIFF’s Rediscovery section is particularly strong this year, with titles such as “Taxi Driver,” “The Conformist,” “Battleship Potemkin” and “3:10 to Yuma.”
“Most people would never have the opportunity to see these films, especially these spectacular new prints, on the big screen if not for MIFF,” Haines said.
“The Conformist” has a particularly special place for Eisen. “[It is] the film that actually launched me into a lifetime of programming movies, for better or for worse. It’s responsible,” he said.
Some of the other film highlights include the opening night movie “The Athlete,” a biopic about Ethiopian Olympian Abebe Bikila; the directorial debut from actress Vera Farmiga, “Higher Ground”; “Salvation Boulevard,” starring Pierce Brosnan and past Mid-life Achievement Award recipient Ed Harris; and “Another Earth” on closing night, a favorite coming out of the Sundance Film Festival.
Representing Maine this year are titles such as “Falcons & Terrorists: A Political Wildlife Story,” “The American Folk Festival,” “An Uncommon Curiosity: At Home and in Nature with Bernd Heinrich” and John Ford’s “Dreaming the Quiet Man.”
One concern for Haines is the move from Waterville Opera House to Given Auditorium at Colby College. The opera house, in past years, has been the festival’s largest venue with 800 seats. Given Auditorium seats 325.
“In the past, we’ve never really had to worry about selling out our biggest venue,” Haines said. “I think we’re gonna sell out quite a few shows. Audience members really need to think about purchasing tickets in advance for things they want to see.”
For more information on the 14th annual Maine International Film Festival, or for a complete schedule, visit miff.org.
Joel Crabtree is a digital desk editor at The Bangor Daily News. You can read his film reviews at http://bdn.to/movies.