First at fest: Films, fans; Festival: In its second year, Maryland's version of Sundance shines with great movies and charm.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

So much for sophomore slumps.

The Maryland Film Festival navigated its second year with grace, warmth and charm last weekend. While festivals such as Cannes, Toronto and Sundance swell to bursting with cell-phone-toting poseurs and neurotic studio executives, the Maryland Film Festival is emerging as a refreshingly laid-back, well organized and friendly cine-marathon, where films and their fans always come first.

Last year's maiden voyage of the festival was an impressive debut, and the second year more than delivered on that promise, providing audiences with a diverse slate of outstanding films. But even the best films wouldn't count for much if the atmosphere of the festival wasn't pleasant, and that's where the Maryland Film Festival really shines.

The 1999 festival augured well in that regard, too: Last year I noted that the festival had the right attitude when Zeke, festival founder Jed Dietz's standard poodle, greeted guests at the Charles door. This year, the festival upped the ante, welcoming some 30 dogs at an early screening, an apt sign that the festival still has its priorities straight, and is only getting better at expressing them.

The dogs were there for "A.J.'s Dogumentary," one of many movies that emerged as audience favorites throughout the weekend. A.J. Poulin's funny and unexpectedly moving portrait of obsessive dog owners would have been a pleasure to watch even without the pups, but having such a beautiful and well-behaved group of filmgoers share the experience only heightened the movie's charms. (Note those humans who insist on talking, taking phone calls and otherwise behaving badly during any movie: This critic can finally say without fear of contradiction that dogs are more considerate than you are.)

How did the Maryland Film Festival manage to become in one year what most festivals take at least five years to achieve?

Good planning is one reason. Founder Jed Dietz spent years laying the groundwork before he launched the festival, making sure that it was well-funded enough to carry out his goals. A fabulous lineup is another. Dietz, programming adviser Gabe Wardell and an outstanding advisory board together have created an extraordinarily diverse and fascinating slate of films. It doesn't hurt that the festival unspools at the Senator and the Charles, two of the most attractive and movie-friendly theaters on the Eastern seaboard, if not the planet.

But the festival does another thing right that isn't immediately visible to the average audience member. Unlike most festivals, Maryland pays the way for visiting filmmakers, flying them in, putting them up and treating them to a terrific Baltimore weekend, complete with Orioles games.

Throughout the weekend these artists, used to being treated with something between apathy and contempt at most festivals, walked around in an almost dazed state, shocked at being treated so well. The fact that Maryland is not a distributer's festival also helped. Rather than worrying, hustling and competing with each other for time with a studio representative, the filmmakers could actually relax, enjoy their own movies and even see a few others.

That contentment is contagious. Not only are Maryland festival-goers immune from the contact-anxiety that tends to make Sundance a jittery, invidious weasel nest, they also can actually approach directors and stars for informal conversation without making an appointment with a publicist.

The festival's largesse, while classy, does have a downside: a high ticket price. Ten dollars is too much for individual screenings, and the $8 student and senior rate is prohibitive for people who would otherwise be the ideal festival audience. This year's new three-for-two package was an improvement, but the price still needs to come down. With luck, Dietz's efforts to get more corporate sponsors for the festival will make that easier.

In the meantime, this year's event provided an abundance of great memories -- those transcendent, ephemeral moments that made for such a meaningful festival. A few favorites:

Watching "La Esquina Caliente," Michael Skolnik's sweet, affecting account of the Baltimore Orioles' trip to Cuba, with the St. Ignatius students who joined them.

Those breathtaking crane shots in an exquisitely restored print of "I Am Cuba."

Stunning, thoroughly original features such as "Compensation" and "Kill By Inches" and amusing bagatelles such as "Please Kill Mr. Kinski" and "The Acting Class," which delighted a crowd on Sunday's nearly sold-out showing despite technical glitches that vexed the video programs in the Charles 3 auditorium.

Rufus Thomas leading hundreds of thousands of fans at Los Angeles's Memorial Stadium in dancing the Funky Chicken in "Wattstax," this year's repertory revelation. ("Wattstax" also wins the award for best fashion moments.)

The showing of Kevin McKiernan's sobering "Good Kurds, Bad Kurds," which because of its politics has been kept off television by timid networks. Getting otherwise overlooked or censored films such as this one to audiences is just what the festival should be doing.

Michael Pack's "The Fall of Newt Gingrich," an absorbing look at the final days of one of the most fascinating and powerful political figures of the late 20th century. (Look for the documentary later this summer on PBS.)

"Good Kurds, Bad Kurds," "Long Night's Journey Into Day," and "King Gimp" all featured mothers of incomparable moral strength, who provided indelible and inspiring images of tenacity and survival. Linda Ritter, the mother of artist Dan Keplinger, who has cerebral palsy, appeared at the opening-night screening of the Oscar-winning "King Gimp" at the Senator and was a particularly powerful presence at this year's festival.

Ritter explained from the Senator's stage how she and Dan resolved early on to simply ignore those who sought to hold him back (including several teachers and administrators whose actions could have landed them at the wrong end of a lawsuit), and instead focused on a life of independence and autonomy. Ritter's simple eloquence spoke volumes about the unfathomable power of a mother's love.

"The Wilgus Stories," three tender, richly layered films adapted by Andrew Garrison from the short stories of Gurney Norman. Sunday's screening was the sort of intimate experience that was characteristic of the festival, but it doesn't have to be the last time Baltimore audiences see these wonderful movies, if MPT does the right thing and schedules them for airing later this year.

The sight of Zoie, A.J. Poulin's lovely and talented black Labrador, quietly padding over to Keplinger and sitting at his feet while Dietz introduced "A.J.'s Dogumentary."

Even Chris Hume's smug, sloppy and ahistorical "This Is Cuba" proved to be ideal festival fare, if only because it provoked such a passionate discussion after its Saturday screening. Would that Hume's personal graciousness and obvious love for the people of Cuba had been reflected in his narration of the film.

I haven't even mentioned Jonathan Richman, Taylor Branch, Jacq and Jill Hennessy and "The Acting Class" gang, Jim Katz and Bob Harris, all of whom injected more spirit and fun into the weekend. And that was magician Ricky Jay, who materialized unexpectedly at Sunday's performance of the American Magic Lantern Theater.

Luckily for those who killed a few too many brain cells at Sunday's closing night party (present company painfully included) and are a bit fuzzy in the memory department, these moments and more will be preserved on the festival's Web site, to be found at www.mdfilmfest.com.

If you couldn't attend the festival this year, check it out and see what you missed. The rest of us lucky ones can relive a rewarding weekend while we eagerly await next year.

Sun staff reporter Chris Kaltenbach contributed to this report.

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