The Cinequest film festival takes place annually in my hometown of San Jose, CA. Ranked in recent memory by The Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide as one of the top ten film festivals in the world (and don't think they'll let you forget it), Cinequest rides on the tension of celebrating "mavericks" of independent cinema while also luring big-name star attractions to whom the festival organizers can present their Maverick Spirit Award. Honorary Board members include directors Robert Wise (Maverick Spirit Award winner and frequent attendee), Luis Valdez (also an Award honoree) and Bryan Singer, former L.A. Times critic Sheila Benson (who interviewed Maverick Spirit Award winner Kevin Spacey on stage for the 1998 fest), screenwriter Barbara Turner (also Jennifer Jason Leigh's mom), and editor Paul Seydor (who edits most of Ron Shelton's films). For many years, Gideon Bachmann consulted with the festival on its foreign film offerings (Bachmann is a noted Fellini intimate featured on Criterion's DVD of 8 1/2).
Recipients of the Cinequest Maverick Spirit Award form an impressive list, including Spike Lee, Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Ben Kingsley, Val Kilmer, Elmer Bernstein, Gabriel Byrne, Barry Sonnenfeld, Gus Van Sant, John Schlesinger, Werner Herzog, Russ Meyer, Walter Murch, Jennifer Beals, Rod Steiger, Vilmos Zsigmond, Wes Craven, Dario Argento, Ralph Bakshi, and many more. Cinequest has also proved its resilience by rallying and recovering from the rare last-minute no-show, including tributees Neil Jordan and Billy Bob Thornton, whose absence in 2001 was announced the day of the event as people began to queue up.
Current venues include the Camera Cinemas, the San Jose Repertory Theatre, and the California Theatre. I've attended the festival since 1996 (almost always as a working reviewer). A big plus for Cinequest is the opportunity to rub elbows with famous talent. Many of the honorees have made themselves approachable (Peter Fonda, in fact, held court for quite some time after his on-stage chat, talking with folks, posing for pictures, and signing autographs).
The best bets at Cinequest are usually the documentaries, the foreign films, and the tribute events. Filmmakers and cast often attend the screenings of films small and large, for short pre-screening or post-screening chats. The biggest tribute events, like 2002's McKellen coup, have commonly played to sizeable crowds, now ushered to downtown San Jose's gloriously restored California Theatre. For complete information about Cinequest or to order tickets, visit www.cinequest.org.