In its second year since dropping the AFI brand, the Dallas Film Society’s Dallas International Film Festival still offers a vigorous schedule, a long lineup, and a decent list of stars and filmmakers making their way to the city over the next 10 days. Since its launch as a full-fledged festival, artistic director James Faust has made clear his intention of helping the Dallas IFF grow into the “Toronto of the South.” The Canadian film fest is known as the launching pad of each year’s Oscar favorites (among the movies that impressed at the 2010 edition were Black Swan and Rabbit Hole).
But the timing of the Dallas event leaves it in an odd position. Following Sundance and South-by-Southwest, it is not a festival that is going to discover the next indie outsider hit, but the festival is beginning to cultivate a name as a momentum builder. Films that premiere at Sundance and SXSW can sling-shot momentum from a good showing in the Dallas market, and to that end festival organizers claim both The Hurt Locker and Winter’s Bone as points of pride: two movies that gained audience traction after buzz at the Dallas fest.
Local audiences are likely not as concerned with how the Dallas IFF stacks up in the festival industry, but rather whether the festival can pull together 10 days of quality movies and offer new discoveries. In this way, the timing of the Dallas fest has an upside: Dallas can cull from the hits of some of the other festivals (at least the films that haven’t already been snatched in exclusive distribution deals). This year’s Dallas IFF is especially chockfull of documentaries that impressed at Sundance and SXSW, including The Interrupters, Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Project Nim, and Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey.
On the feature film front, I have worked my way through some of the Dallas IFF’s centerpiece screenings and narrative competition films, and I’ve yet to spot this year’s Winter’s Bone. At best, the features are beautifully shot or seductively meditative but lack a feeling of dramatic solidity or narrative oomph. The movies I have enjoyed the most are the quirkier, off-the-wall fare, (like the hilarious Rainbow’s End) the kinds of movies that you’ll likely never get to see again if you don’t catch them on the festival circuit.
And so here are some of the picks from the films I have been able to catch in advance of this year’s festival. We’ll also be providing daily updates with reviews and previews as well as filmmaker interviews throughout the festival, so be sure to continue to check back with FrontRow to stay on top of the Dallas International Film Festival
When was the last time you saw a feel-good movie about a tragic accident followed by a heartwarming recovery that was worth writing home about? Right, rarely ever. Soul Surfer comes close, and if you like going to movies for a good-time cry, you may check out the film about the 13-year-old surfer whose arm was bitten off by a 15-foot tiger shark.
But it’s Beautiful Boy that comes closer to real art. The film is a close-up study of a married couple working through an almost unimaginable catastrophe: their only son was the perpetrator of a college campus shooting in which more than a dozen students were killed, including the boy, who took his own life. Starring Michael Sheen and Maria Bello, director Shawn Ku’s camera rarely takes its steady gaze off the lead protagonists’ faces, creating a claustrophobic experience of raw emotional energy. Hard to bear at times, Beautiful Boy succeeds at using an extreme situation to approach something more universally common: the way the actions of those we love affect our own meaning and purpose in life.
Narrative Feature Competition
While I very much enjoyed Mexican director Jack Zagha’s goofy, deadbeat comedy Goodbye Cruel World — about an unemployed insurance salesman who falls in with a gang of inept criminals — Surrogate Valentine is one of the best films among those competing for best narrative feature at this year’s fest. Co-written and staring musician Goh Nakamura, Dave Boyle’s film is a mumblecore relative about a young singer whose filmmaker sister hires him to show the star in her upcoming film, Danny Turner, what the life of a café-playing singer-songwriter is really like. Danny turns out to be a hilarious caricature of the unchecked, egomaniacal (and clueless) L.A. movie star, and playing off Goh Nakamura’s statuesque sense of cool, the two become a comedy duo lost in a love-starved romance. Surrogate Valentine never quite follows through with its dramatic punch, but as a tonal study of wayward youth, it sings a pretty song.
A moody, adolescently gothic tale about a young vigilante, Boy Wonder is best as a realist reimagining of the Batman-style superhero story. Caleb Steinmeyer plays Sean Donovan, a young man who lost his mother when he was a boy and has been living with his recovering alcoholic father. Quiet and removed, the boy secretly attacks bad guys in the streets of Brooklyn by night, hoping he’ll find an opportunity to avenge his mother’s murder. Boy Wonder’s script isn’t the strongest, and as the film develops the initially enigmatic Sean turns into an emotional cliché. The catalyst to this transformation is Teresa Ames (Zulay Henao), a hotshot young detective, who spews out television cop talk and has an unbelievable predilection for knowing exactly where all the movie’s plot twists will lead us. Ames is too good a detective, sucking the mystery out of an initially intriguing dramatic conceit.
Documentary Feature Competition
There are a handful of good stories among this year’s documentary selections — from far-out novelist and literary icon Norman Mailer to the hardcore horse trainers who tame wild mustangs each year — but Tim Skousen’s documentary Zero Percent stands out. The film goes into New York’s maximum security prison, Sing Sing, and looks at an education program there that has turned around the lives of the many inmates. The title refers to the re-incarceration rate for those who participate in the program (compared to the national average rate of re-incarceration which is 60 percent), but Zero Percent strength comes not through sociological point-making, but through its candid interviews with inmates — murders, drug dealers — who reveal to their camera a reflective, deep-feeling sensibility that is profoundly moving to witness. The film is not about jail, but rather about the power of education and its role in opening up the imagination to the possibilities of life.
Miranda July’s work is an acquired taste. Her quirky, offbeat sense of humor is hard to spot at first glance, and the often haphazard pacing and emotional awkwardness she creates in her movies can feel strained and unpleasant to sit through. But the artist/filmmaker has a unique cinematic vision, owing in part to sensitivity towards the visual medium she cultivates through her work as a video artist. In The Future she pushes that narrative ambition even further than she has in other films. July’s movie is a lovesick, melancholic tale, both deeply personal and resonates with a greater cultural consciousness.
If you see that Steve James has a new movie out, you see it. Perhaps the foremost documentarian of his generation and an heir to from-the-street documentary storytelling pioneered by Frederick Wiseman, James’ The Interrupters offers a mesmerizing glimpse at inner-city Chicago and the quiet heroes who risk their lives to save their community from violence. Plus, James will be at the festival to receive a Star Award. Don’t miss it.
In the running for the zaniest, funniest, most enjoyable ride of the fest: Rainbow’s End, a bizarre, Spinal Tap-inspired mock doc about a group of musicians and oddballs from Nacogdoches, Texas, who set out on a rock ‘n’ roll odyssey to Los Angeles where they will record a session with outsider music legend, The Legendary Stardust Cowboy. What sets this band apart is that their drum set made with pieces of the space shuttle that exploded over Nacogdoches. Blurring fact and fiction, Rainbow’s End is populated with the kinds of eccentric fools that lend backwoods Texas its endearing mystique, from a bearded, baton twirling dandy, to a man with a howitzer canon who blows up cars.
Environmental Visions Competition
When a multinational energy company threatens to disrupt the livelihood of an Irish fishing and farming community by setting up an offshore natural gas drilling site and laying miles of piping across the countryside to pump the gas to a refinery, the community protests. The Pipe begins in the mob, the camera pushed and shoved along with the protesting people by local police officers sent out to allow the energy corporation access to the drilling site. From there the movie moves into heated local conversations, as the frustrated people seek a way to protect their land and waters, while disagreeing on the means and extremes they are willing to go to. There are some bright personalities, particularly a stubborn fisherman who endures multiple arrests in an effort to protect his crab pots from being destroyed by the drilling. But what resonates in The Pipe is the irresolvable sense of frustration — that the little guy has little hope of ever saving what he has when faced with the power of multinational commerce
The Perfect Game: I can’t really recommend The Perfect Game, the only movie I have seen so far from the family friendly section. It is an exceedingly sentimental and forced retelling of what is essentially a great story about a youth baseball team from Monterey, Mexico, that goes on to win the Little League World Series. Like in Machete, Cheech Marin turns up in another movie playing a priest, but rather than a womanizing, gun-wielding blasphemous dig, Marin’s pastor to the baseball team is a sincere and grandfatherly. What kills any hope you could have for The Perfect Game — well, besides the terrible script, Lifetime-style direction, and Hallmark card cinematography — is Clifton Collins Jr.’s comically awful performance as the team’s coach Cesar.