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Originally published Sunday, September 16, 2012 at 5:32 AM

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Bruce Dern headlines Port Townsend Film Festival 2012

A preview of the Port Townsend Film Festival 2012. Special guest this year is actor Bruce Dern.

Seattle Times movie critic

Film festival preview

Port Townsend Film Festival

Sept 21-23, at several venues in Port Townsend. Various passes available; full-festival pass is $185 and includes an opening-night salmon dinner and Saturday-night awards gala. For more information: or 360-379-1333.
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Will 13 be lucky for the Port Townsend Film Festival?

Unspooling Sept. 21-23, the 13th annual edition of the PTFF features two special guests this year. It's a festival trademark to invite a well-known star of Hollywood films, with past guests including Tony Curtis (the inaugural year), Eva Marie Saint, Jane Powell, Patricia Neal, Debra Winger, Elliott Gould and Cloris Leachman. Each chose a film as the festival's centerpiece Saturday-night screening, followed by an onstage conversation with the audience, making for a unique and intimate evening. (Yes, Leachman — fresh off "Dancing with the Stars" — was every bit as funny as you'd think she'd be.)

This year's star is Bruce Dern, the longtime character actor whose career began on television shows such as "Gunsmoke" in the 1960s and came to include such movies as "Coming Home" (for which he received an Oscar nomination), "Black Sunday," "The Great Gatsby," "Silent Running" and many more. At 76, he's still making movies (he's in Alexander Payne's "Nebraska" and Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained," both upcoming), and recently finished a triumphant run as unhinged polygamist Frank Harlow in the HBO series "Big Love." At PTFF, he'll present "Smile," the 1975 beauty-pageant satire starring Dern, Barbara Feldon and a very young Melanie Griffith.

This year's additional special guest isn't an actor, but a musician — and the subject of one of the festival's opening-night films. Chely Wright will attend the festival's Friday-night screening of "Wish Me Away," a documentary about her experiences as the first commercially successful country-music singer to come out as a lesbian. (It previously screened at the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival last year, and later at the SIFF Film Center.) Wright will be interviewed on stage after the screening.

There's always been something pleasantly old-timey about this festival, which takes place just as the leaves are fading (PTFF has remarkable luck with weather; it's gloriously sunny nearly every year) and is centered on two historic venues: the jewel-box Rose Theater downtown, and the Uptown Theater, well, uptown. Past years have seen more focus on older films, but this edition does feature one treat for cinema-history buffs: the 1933 Yasujiro Ozu melodrama "Woman of Tokyo," which will screen Friday night at the Rose with live jazz accompaniment performed by a five-musician combo featuring composer/pianist Wayne Horvitz.

Screening outdoors on Taylor Street are "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" on Friday night, "The Empire Strikes Back" on Saturday night and "Tootsie" on Sunday. Outdoor screenings are free and are lively community gatherings: Bundled-up moviegoers can sit on their own chairs, or on bales of straw brought for the occasion. (Every festival venue traditionally features bales on which to perch while waiting in line; you can always spot PTFF attendees by the bits of straw dangling from their coats.)

Indoors, the festival features more than two dozen feature-length documentaries and narrative films. Many have an international flavor, such as the Rwandan drama "Kinyarwanda" (with filmmaker Alrick Brown present); the local documentary "The Revolutionary," about the lone American member (now a Northwest resident) of the Chinese Communist Party; the music documentary "Under African Skies," celebrating the 25th anniversary of Paul Simon's "Graceland" album; "Free Men," a thriller about an Algerian immigrant who befriends a Jewish man in Paris during World War II. And PTFF has a knack for finding small, under-the-radar films of quirky charm; a few likely candidates this year may be "QWERTY," a romantic comedy about Scrabble, or "Trash Dance," a documentary about a dance performance — starring garbage trucks.

And much of the fun of PTFF takes place off-screen, in the cinema lines and coffeehouses and theater lobbies, where attendees gather to debate their favorites and share festival memories. In its earlier days, PTFF billed itself as "a film lover's block party" and the description still fits. Short and sweet — just three days — it's a celebration of watching movies with friends, old and new.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

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