As a student at Park Ridge High School in the 1970s, James Gandolfini starred in plays, but never had the chance to appear in student films.
"When we were growing up, that technology wasn't there," Gandolfini's sister Johanna Antonacci said. "It was a big deal when my father got a movie camera."
Now, a Bergen County high school film award bears the name of the late actor, whose leading role on "The Sopranos" brought Gandolfini - - and his native New Jersey -- international renown.
The ninth annual Jersey Filmmakers of Tomorrow Bergen County High School Student Film Festival, which took place Saturday night at Mediamax Studio in Allendale, renamed its highest award for Gandolfini, who died in June at age 51.
That award went to Emma Taubner, a senior at Bergenfield High School, for her film "Just. Come. Home."
Shot over three days, with her parents, friend and dog in starring roles, the film's carefully composed shots and dramatic voiceover created a sense of dark urgency, with a surprise happy ending.
The other nine finalists hailed from Northern Valley Regional High School at Old Tappan, Tenafly High School, Mahwah High School, Paramus High School, Fort Lee High School and Ramapo High School. The festival received more than 100 submissions this year, said Nelson Page, chairman of the Fort Lee Film Commission, a sponsor of the event.
The films, which were screened for a small audience before the award ceremony, ranged in style from dark surrealist drama to nostalgic documentary. Many shared a common theme: the dreams and ambitions of youth at odds with parental authority, tradition or harsh reality.
The "Best of the Fest" award -- now the "James Gandolfini Award for the Best Student Film" -- includes a $500 cash award and 72 hours of post-production time at Sirk Digital Studios in Manhattan.
In the spirit of Tony Soprano, family and friends of Gandolfini were on hand.
Among the audience members were actors Vincent Curatola, an Englewood native, and Tony Sirico -- who portrayed Johnny "Sack" Sacramoni and Paulie "Walnuts" Gualtieri, respectively, on "The Sopranos."
Sirico said he was impressed by all the films but mentioned in particular "Generations of the Shoah," a documentary about a Holocaust survivor by Ben and Adam Danzger of Teaneck -- their film took third place. "That was well done," Sirico said.
He also liked "Hidden," an edgy Farsi short filmed in Tehran last summer by Jasmine Asgari of Fort Lee High School.
"Jimmy would say he loved them all," Sirico said. "He'd say, 'Hopefully, they'd hire me.' "
Second place went to "This is Sikh: A Teenager's Perspective" by Paramus High School senior Inderpreet Dhaliwal. The film showed "how I bridge the gap between my American life and my Sikh life," Dhaliwal said.
Taubner, whose favorite director is Quentin Tarantino, said she drew inspiration from another wildly popular cable series: she modeled a pair of close-ups (a carrot rolling across the floor, cutting to a car wheel rolling up the street) on a similar transition in "Breaking Bad," when a bloody scene cuts to a shot of ketchup, she said.
"It feels like I just won an Oscar," Taubner, who is applying to college and hopes to become a director.
Antonacci, who lives in Montvale, said her brother would have been "honored" by the naming of the award and impressed by all the student films.
"It's amazing how much work they did," Antonacci said.
Next year, Page said, the film festival hopes to move statewide.
A service of YellowBrix, Inc.
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