As the annual Maui Film Festival enters its 20th year, the high points are easy to cite. Let’s start with the various “Tastes”: the Oceanside Taste of Summer, the “crown jewel” Taste of Wailea, and for serious choco-holics, the granddaddy of them all, the Taste of Chocolate. There’s the glorious outdoor bonding experience of the Celestial Cinema, the cool and intimate Castle Theater screenings, and the free Toes-In-The Sand screening at Wailea Beach. The celebrities scheduled to appear this year are a head-spinning bunch of talent: Paul Rudd, Awkwafina, Sofia Vergara, Joe Mangenello, and Olivia Wilde. Twenty-three films will be shown and they include everything from acclaimed festival hits (like the Awkwafina-starring The Farewell) to documentaries on Pavarotti, Ram Dass, and dog grooming. Yet, if there’s one aspect of Barry Rivers’ richly opulent festival that is somewhat underrated, it’s the films themselves. Here’s an ode to some of the greatest movies that played at the world’s finest film festival.
Love & Mercy (2014)
Witnessing this Brian Wilson biopic, by turns enrapturing and devastating, on opening night at the 2014 MFF Celestial Cinema spot, was one of the greatest movie-going experiences of my life. So powerful was that evening that I haven’t been able to re-watch the film since.
Whale Rider (2002)
A milestone experience for MFF devotees: Seeing Niki Caro’s New Zealand-based Maori drama – a blend of family drama and magical realism – was so affecting for Celestial Cinema attendees, a still photo of the evening was once the most iconic online image of the MFF.
Short Term 12 (2013)
A source of great pride for Maui film lovers, Ha‘iku resident Destin Cretton’s deeply moving film debut not only displayed a startling maturity but starred a then-unknown (and superb) Brie Larson. Six years later, they are two powerful artists in the Marvel Movie Universe. Who knew? We did.
This highly improvised comedic gem, starring John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill, is, scene-for-scene, the funniest movie I’ve ever seen at the MFF. The audience in the Castle Theater was howling nearly non-stop.
Step Into Liquid (2003)
Every year, the MFF offers a great surfing documentary and brings out the sandy sandals crowd. Yet, no recent surf doc has shredded audiences harder than this big wave classic.
The Illusionist (2006)
A perfect match of an artist and film: MFF Rising Star award-winner Jessica Biel once seemed an odd choice for an acting award (coming off the disaster of Stealth). Then, she came to Maui and showed us this spellbinding movie, which absolutely confirmed her talent and signaled a career turn of risk-taking choices.
Most of this film’s massive ensemble cast took to the stage before the film’s triumphant, opening night MFF premiere. Writer and director Brian Kohne’s ‘70s-set Maui drama resonated deeply with local audiences and was a transporting experience for everyone.
Ron Fricke, director of Baraka (which features dreamlike scenes of Haleakala) returned with this transfixing visual meditation on sacred spaces and human movement. For the festival goers attuned to spirituality, yoga, and chakras, this movie is pure cinematic candy.
Mr. Holmes (2015)
It seemed like an odd choice, showcasing this intimate drama starring Ian McKellen, in the Celestial Cinema setting. Yet, not unlike the audience response to Love & Mercy the year before, this movie cast a spell on its audience, which shuffled away spellbound.
20 Feet From Stardom (2013)
A fantastic look at the back-up singers to some of the greatest pop artists of the 20th century. I still relish hearing Darlene Love explain why Van Morrison’s “Wild Side” is an acceptable tribute to the women of color who sang vocals on some of the greatest tunes ever recorded.
MFF guest Josh Radnor’s directorial debut showcased a jaw-dropping, seldom seen dramatic performance from MFF guest Malin Ackerman. The title is a likely culprit to why this one never caught on but there is raw honesty in Radnor’s film and Ackerman’s career best work is award-caliber great.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)
Watching this with a crowd of hundreds during a Celestial Cinema screening, one thing became very clear: This movie was going to be big. A few weeks later, it opened nationwide and it became a blockbuster… a surprise to no one who heard the sea of laughter at the ‘02 fest.
An unpredictable drama, with a never-better Keri Russell playing a love struck waitress who vents her frustrations through pie-making. If it sounds cutesy and rote, think again. This smart sleeper has a final scene that would have made Chaplin cry.
Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon (2013)
Most longtime Maui residents know that legendary music and film producer Shep Gordon lives on the West Side, but this engrossing documentary on his life is revealing and surprisingly moving.
Dear Frankie (2004)
This absolute gem, about a deaf boy’s relationship with his caring mother (a breathtaking Emily Mortimer) and a mysterious stranger (played by Gerard Butler) has a quiet poetry. Butler has never been this good since.
Live From New York! (2015)
One of those now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t sleepers that never got a proper distribution. A revealing look at the history and making of “Saturday Night Live,” with interviews from former hosts and cast members that were golden for longtime devotees of the Coneheads, Matt Foley, and Mister Robinson.
The 20th annual Maui Film Festival will be held from June 12-16. See what treasures are in this year’s “jewel box” and visit Mauifilmfestival.com for information about movies, events, locations, and prices. Read Barry’s film review of “Echo in the Canyon,” which will show at the film festival, by clicking here.
Photo by Randy Jay Braun