The winners of the 2023 Mammoth Lakes Film Festival were announced on Sunday night at the close of a lively and nature-filled five-day festival set against a backdrop of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains.
From midnight trips to the local hot springs to a bumpin’ filmmaker’s bash at the Lakanuki tiki bar, this year’s festival was filled with opportunities to connect and have deep conversations with fellow creatives.
Mammoth Lakes Film Festival 2023 Winners List
Matt Kiel’s Unicorn Boy took home the night’s top prize: the Grand Jury Award for U.S. Narrative Feature. The animated film follows the story of a young artist who is sucked into an alternate dimension run by — you guessed it — unicorns! The cast includes Kiel, Patton Oswalt, Michelle Trachtenberg, Harold Perrineau, and Maria Bamford.
The Grand Jury Award for International Narrative Feature went to Serbian writer-director Nina Ognjanović’s Where The Road Leads, which tells the story of a stranger who comes to a small village and is met with suspicion from the local people. Where The Road Leads also won the Audience Award for the International Narrative Feature category.
The Grand Jury Award for Best International Documentary Feature went to To Kill a Tiger by Indian director Nisha Kumari Pahuja. It follows Ranjit, who seeks justice after his 13-year-old daughter is raped.
The Grand Jury Award for U.S. Documentary Feature went to A Still Small Voice directed by Luke Lorentzen. The film follows a group of hospital chaplains who deal with the emotional fallout of their work as spiritual support for sick and dying patients.
Full disclosure: I was a juror for the U.S. Documentary Feature category and helped select A Still Small Voice for the prize. I and my fellow jurors were impressed by Lorentzen’s ability to make his subjects feel comfortable during deeply emotional, mid-pandemic bedside moments, like when Chaplain Mati helped a pair of grieving parents through the loss of their child. We also appreciated both the depth and overall cohesiveness of the storyline.
We awarded the 2023 Mammoth Lakes Film Festival Bravery Award to Mississippi River Styx, directed by Tim Grant & Andy McMillan, for the filmmaking team’s commitment to telling Kelly Phillips’ story, even if it meant risking their lives by boarding his rickety houseboat amid the dangerous waters of the Mississippi River.
See the full list of winners below:
U.S. Narrative Feature
Free Time (USA) – Approaching the end of his twenties, a man impulsively decides to quit his cushy desk job and “embrace life” — only to realize he doesn’t really have one. Directed and written by Ryan Martin Brown. West Coast Premiere
I Said Daddy I Said (USA) – LaLa’s plan to leave her abusive boyfriend Daddy crumbles around her when she realizes someone is watching her every move. Directed by Sebastian Karantonis and written by Sebastian Karantonis and Ryan Miller. World Premiere
*AUDIENCE AWARD WINNER* Love Dump (USA) – Trash-filled love ensues when a quirky antique shop owner searches for her missing father and falls for a determined dog lawyer along the way. Directed by Jason Avezzano and written by Leila Gorstein and Jesse Kendall. California Premiere
Pure Gesticulation (USA) – When Son begins a mysterious new business venture instructing strangers over the phone, Mother can’t help but involve herself. Mother plus Son to the power of gravity… Directed and written by Joey Hirsh. World Premiere
*GRAND JURY PRIZE WINNER* Unicorn Boy (USA) – When a heartbroken young artist is sucked into a unicorn-run alternate dimension, they must help conquer a dark force in order to bring peace to the kingdom and themselves. Directed and written by Matt Kiel. California Premiere
International Narrative Feature
The Horse Tail (Poland) – Diana, an aging sex worker, comes back to a town at the foot of a cliff, between a rubbish dump, barns, and a forest, where people form incestuous relationships and hold painful secrets. Directed and written by Justyna Łuczaj. World Premiere
Mad Cats (Japan) – Taka, a shiftless young man, teams up with a quirky new friend and an edgy, mysterious young girl, on a quest to find his brother who has been kidnapped by a pack of vicious monster cats determined to execute unscrupulous pet shop owners. Directed and written by Reiki Tsuno. West Coast Premiere
Nut Jobs (Canada) – Benjamin tells his ex-girlfriend Angie that he joined a leftist terrorist cell to avenge her from being fired by an awful right-wing talk radio station. His wild story revolves around a hallucinogenic vinyl record album, and Angie suspects he’s making it all up just to get her back. Directed by Alexandre Leblanc. Written by Alexandre Leblanc and Julien Grégoire. West Coast Premiere
*GRAND JURY PRIZE, AUDIENCE AWARD WINNER* Where the Road Leads (Serbia) – A stranger arrives in an isolated village and the locals suspect his involvement in constructing a highway nearby; their intolerance gradually builds to open conflict. Jana falls in love with him and sees the danger; she’s the only one who can save him. Directed and written by Nina Ognjanović.
U.S. Documentary Feature
*GRAND JURY PRIZE WINNER* A Still Small Voice (USA) – An aspiring hospital chaplain begins a yearlong residency in spiritual care, only to discover that to successfully tend to her patients, she must look deep within herself. Directed by Luke Lorentzen. West Coast Premiere
*BRAVERY AWARD WINNER* Mississippi River Styx (USA) – An enigmatic drifter with terminal cancer lives his dream of floating down the Mississippi River on a ramshackle houseboat — until locals start to question his story. Directed by Tim Grant & Andy McMillan. California Premiere
*AUDIENCE AWARD WINNER* Name of the Game (USA) – The untold story of black male exotic dancing in south Los Angeles and how it intersects with the origins of hip hop, gang culture, and kung fu assassins. Directed by William Forbes and Douglas Skinner. World Premiere
Starring Jerry as Himself (USA) – A family re-enacts the unbelievable, twisting true story of how their immigrant father Jerry, a recently divorced and retired Florida man, was unexpectedly recruited by the Chinese police to be an undercover agent in an international money laundering investigation. Directed by Law Chen. West Coast Premiere
International Documentary Feature
Destiny (Iran) – A poignant profile of a smart and gifted teenage girl who desperately wants to go to college but has to face hard choices in the wake of her mother’s tragic passing and her father’s need for daily assistance. Directed and written by Yaser Talebi. West Coast Premiere
*AUDIENCE AWARD WINNER* Naked Israel (Israel) – Interviewees are exposed both physically and mentally in this irreverent look at Israeli masculinity, through a series of interviews with men from a broad range of ages and backgrounds. Directed by Ines Moldavsky. World Premiere
No Place For You In Our Town (Bulgaria) – A group of hooligans from a decaying ex-mining city cling to their soccer team’s success as though their lives depend on it. When they face a series of personal and communal collapses, it seems that the whole world is changing — but will they? Directed by NIkolay Stefanov. US Premiere
*GRAND JURY PRIZE WINNER* To Kill A Tiger (India) – Ranjit takes on the fight of his life when he seeks justice for his 13-year old daughter, the victim of a gang rape. Directed by Nisha Kumari Pahuja.
Main Image: A still from Matt Kiel’s Unicorn Boy