11/04/2014 01:47 pm ET Updated Jan 04, 2015

Highlights of the Savannah Film Festival

One cannot separate the operation and success of the Savannah Film Festival from its primary driving force, the Savannah College of Art and Design. And while attending the latest Festival, which ran Oct. 25-Nov. 1, this writer was struck by the unanimous responses by locals. Most denizens of this picturesque tourist destination agree that SCAD is responsible for the decades-long resurgence of this Georgia city of approximately 250,000.

It would seem irrefutable when one considers that SCAD has more than 70 buildings in Savannah, to say nothing of SCAD Atlanta and satellite schools in Lacoste, France and Hong Kong. The recently opened Savannah Film Studios, a refurbishment of a former meat-packing plant on the outskirts of town, has enough physical space and state-of-the-art tech to rival any film school and aid in the production of thirty-five senior films per academic year.

At the festival itself, the work of SCAD students was on display as well as the work of former SCAD alumni, including animators Zach Parrish and Nathan Engelhardt, who returned to a rapturous reception from their alma mater for the first Marvel comics film adaptation, the charming, Disney 3-D release, Big Hero 6. Particularly inspiring was Parrish and Engelhardt describing their professional backstory, a process of recommending each other for jobs until they were joined together in the process of animating no less than 91 characters on this project.

Most surprising in its creative risk-taking was the 3-D animated The Book of Life. Director Jorge Gutierrez used a vibrant color palette and mythological and musical influences of Mexican culture to tell this wild tale of undying love, quite literally, involving the living and the departed. Gutierrez gratefully acknowledged executive producer Guillermo del Toro, who temporarily left behind his horror filmmaking to smooth the path of studio filmmaking, bringing us this ground-breaking feature from Fox.

HBO Films President Len Amato was on hand to present the screening of playwright-screenwriter Larry Kramer's heartbreaking tribute to the beginnings of the AIDS crisis in New York City, The Normal Heart. Amato and actor Matt Bomer (an Emmy nominee for his role as the character Felix Turner) paid tribute to Kramer's uncompromising storytelling, as well as, according to Amato, Kramer's indefatigable promotional energy: "When they did the revival of the play, Larry was outside of the theatre, handing out flyers. That's the kind of person Larry is." The film is a proud compliment to the stage play, recently and admirably produced this year at Hollywood's The Fountain Theatre.

Savannah had screenings of Oscar contenders like The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as cryptanalyst Alan Turing, whose work breaking the Nazi's Enigma code during World War II was undermined by the persecution of him as a homosexual, then literally a crime in the UK. Writer Graham Moore expertly cross-cuts through time and Cumberbatch, as with his role as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate, shows great mettle in portraying a villainized hero.

An audience favorite at Savannah was Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, in which J.K. Simmons plays a jazz band instructor who is more like a foul-mouthed military drill instructor. Miles Teller gives every ounce of his sweat (and blood) as the tortured drummer protégé who longs to both impress and kill Simmons' delightfully cruel master. While stretching the boundaries of feasibility, Whiplash has got the chops to show the thrill of top notch jazz performance, abetted by some great arrangements.

Receiving a lot of discussion for Academy Award consideration is Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher, based on eccentric multi-millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carrell) sponsoring Olympic wrestling brothers (Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo), until a father fixation threatens to be the undoing of all three. Miller, whose Moneyball and Capote so impressed, oddly has a very plodding pace and while Carrell's comedic abilities are unassailable, his dramatic efforts seem flat and lifeless, undermining Ruffalo and Tatum, who are truly touching in their brotherly portrayals.

Finally, a Wim Wenders co-directed and -produced documentary, The Salt of the Earth, provided a dazzling visual punch and spiritual sustenance. This portrait of Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado features not only his stunning black-and-white work but his remarkable life journey. Salgado documented the life of some of the most tortured souls on Earth, in despondent hotspots like the Congo, Bosnia, Rwanda and Saharan Africa. Descending into a dark withdrawal from life, Salgado eventually went to the most untouched and starkly beautiful places on the planet with his camera.He has spent his emeritus years repopulating his own corner of the Amazon rain forest. It is an enobling, splendid and ultimately uplifting doc that defies and broadens the boundaries of the form.