The Good, The Bad and The Weird From The Tenth Annual Dallas International Film Festival.
This year, the Dallas International Film Festival celebrated its 10-year anniversary — a fact was mentioned as often as possible.
Still, this year's festival didn't seem as big as it had in years past. Don't get us wrong: It was still full of some great films, some bad films and — everyone's favorite! — some really weird films. Our critics attended it all week to take in the whole spectrum of films and bring you their thoughts on this year's offerings, as well as some thoughts on the festival itself.
Before we get into it, as a somber aside, we want to recognize local film critic Garry Murray, who passed away after a terrible hit-and-run accident at the intersection of North Central Expressway and Mockingbird Lane while he was leaving the DIFF Honors celebration. He will be missed. — Angela Jones
Javier Fuentes: I'm usually a genre film kind of dude. But during this year's DIFF, I ended up going to mostly documentary and short film blocks exclusively. For one, the programming in both of these categories was top-notch this year. On the documentary front, we had two of the best movies of the festival — Sonita and Tower. The former dealt with a young Afghan girl who emigrates to Iran where she nurtures her love for hip-hop as a way to express her frustrations with the very patriarchal society she lives in. The doc follows her as she tries to record songs while avoiding being married off for money, and it brilliantly illustrates the universal appeal of a predominantly African-American art form while raising questions about the role of the director in a doc. Tower, meanwhile, cleverly recreates the tragic sniper attack atop the UT Austin clock tower in 1966 from the perspective of various participants, using animation, archival footage and interviews with survivors. It’s honestly one of the most heart-breaking movies I’ve seen in a long time; by the time we caught up with the survivors at the end of the film, I was a total sobbing mess. The way these people acted in the face of such senseless violence is awe-inspiring — from the TV producer on the scene to the cops that climbed the tower. Then, on the shorts side, I have to give Sarah Harris a shout out: As the shorts programmer, she offered up her best blocks yet this year. While fiction and documentary are usually separated at most film fests, Harris combined them this year to great ends. The trick to a good short block is that it has to be filled with good movies, but ones that flow right. I went to another local fest once where the shorts block was five 20-minute long shorts that were essentially slice-of-life scenes of foreign countries. No wonder half the audience left before the end. These ones, on the other hand, flowed like a nice playlist. Stand-outs from me include: Trash Cat, The Glove, Pombo Loves You, Eat Pray, So Good To See You, Teapo, The Procedure and Rate Me. Track any of these down online where shorts are usually available. Oh, and the wonderful 35mm print screening of the roadtrip counterculture classic Two-Lane Blacktop was pretty great, too, especially with director Monte Hellman in attendance.
Angela Jones: I too tend to gravitate towards documentaries at festivals, and I agree that this year's DIFF had some fantastic docs on the roster. One of them, Until Proven Innocent, really stuck with me. It falls in the same realm as Making a Murderer or even Serial, following a mom who is convicted of the capital murder of her soon-to-be adopted son. The boy died of a sodium overdose, and a Corpus Christie court that wanted justice gave her a life sentence. As with many crime documentaries, what you hear in the news isn't always the truth. It delves into the history of this woman, her family, the trial and the subsequent aftermath of everything. Parts of the film feel intense because this feels like something that could happen to almost anyone. What happened to this child was almost a freak accident, but the public is so bloodthirsty when the death of a child is involved, police were looking someone — anyone — to pin this on from the beginning. This film will make you mad, make you hug your family and definitely will make you know your rights as a citizen.
Kip Mooney: It's definitely not a documentary, but I want to say that High-Rise is my favorite movie I've seen so far this year. It's bonkers, visually stunning and just has a ton to say. On the doc front, I too thought Tower was an extremely powerful experience about one of Texas' biggest tragedies. But I really want to talk about Weiner. This is the documentary about Anthony Weiner's campaign for mayor of New York City in 2013, which started strong, but ended almost as soon as it began thanks to revelations about Weiner's continued sexting habits. If this film was just a wildly entertaining portrait of a man with no self-control, that would be enough to recommend it, but Weiner also serves as a powerful indictment of the relationship between the media and its consumers. Few people outside New York and D.C. knew who Weiner was prior to his scandal, but after the story broke, we couldn't get enough juicy gossip — and the media, looking for bigger ratings, was happy to oblige. Is it any wonder this political cycle literally featured candidates debating their dick size this year?
Javier Fuentes: Honestly, I was a little disappointed in the the one Latino Showcase movie I saw. I was so hyped to check out Romancing April, a Mexican rom-com that takes place in the beautiful city of Puebla. Going off the description, I was ready for something fresh — but, instead, all I got was a feature-length telenovela rip off. The characters were actually pretty off-putting, the plot was predictable and the only thing that was good was the kooky grandma character and the shots of Puebla.
Angela Jones: Sometimes I decide to go to a film during a festival based on ticket sales. What I mean is, if a film has the words “rush” by it, that means there's only the rush line available for you to maybe get in. So, I went blindly into Three Days in August based solely on that. If people are waiting in a rush line, surely this film must be good. Right? Nope. The reason this one was on rush was because the theater was packed with the family and friends of the people who made the film. It was pretty bad. Basically, a woman invites her parents and her biological mother out to a country house for a weekend so she can paint a giant family portrait with her husband and son. As you can surmise, the two sets of parents don't really get along — like, at all — but instead of some hard-hitting family drama, there's just scene after scene of saccharine and bland dialogue not even worthy of a Lifetime movie. At least Lifetime movies understand their melodramatic element, thus making them a little entertaining. Would you guess that the biological mother has an ulterior motive for being at this get-together? She does! Alas, by the time that's revealed, there's no weight to the conversation. The characters are pretty much one-note and forgettable. Oh yeah, and this script was picked in a contest. This was the winner. Yeesh.
Kip Mooney: Five Nights in Maine features some tremendous acting, but its brief run time and underdeveloped script means its catharsis went unearned. David Oyewelo (Selma) plays Sherwin, a recently widowed man who goes to visit his dying, distinctly terrible mother-in-law (Dianne Wiest). Their verbal sparring provides the movies best scenes, and there are some keenly observed quiet moments, but it falls flat by not developing naturally. Each scene hits the required notes, but then barrels full steam ahead to something resembling reconciliation. There's never any doubting it.
Javier Fuentes: Ben Wheatley is a director near and dear to my heart, so of course I need to talk about his entry into DIFF, High-Rise. Loosely adapting the J.G. Ballard novel of the same name, it explores various sociological issues in the trippiest, absurdist and darkly comic way possible. Starring a ripped Tom Hiddleston and an explosive Luke Evans as tenants in a new apartment building that's supposed to be a new self-contained society, the movie proves one small incident can initiate the complete breakdown of society. Wheatley's style has proven to be chameleon-like, and this movie cements it. Also, in the late-night shorts block, I saw the wonderfully weird The Chickening, which is what you'd get if Tim & Eric directed a chicken commercial set in The Shining's Overlook Hotel. You can actually watch it legally right now, right here.
Angela Jones: I'm right there with you guys on High-Rise. I've seen one other film of his, A Field in England, and the weirdness just continues with High-Rise. It's an absolute absurd and surreal experience. Parts don't completely make sense, and when crap is going down, I kept thinking of why these people didn't just leave this place. But that's not the point. There are bigger ideas there about the breakdown of society and the hierarchy of social circles and classes. As Javi mentioned, it's absurd, trippy and dark. It's a visual spectacle and a very engrossing experience.
Kip Mooney: So, this was DIFF’s 10th anniversary — it started as AFI Dallas back in 2006 — and staff and volunteers made sure to mention it at every chance they got. There were even highlight reels before each film showing off all the various celebrities that had stopped by over the years, among them Dirk Nowitzki, Mark Ruffalo and Peter Bogdanovich. But A-listers — or even B- or C-listers — were curiously absent this year. Future Star Wars star Diego Luna, whose directorial debut Mr. Pig was in competition, did show up, OK. But other than that? Listen, I know festivals are not about celebrities, but Q&As with the actors and filmmakers are often illuminating — and they certainly boost attendance. I don't know if someone dropped the ball or if everyone involved was simply too busy, but it was weird to highlight the 10th anniversary so prominently and then not have anything to show for it. They couldn’t even get some past award winners? Even the USA Film Festival, which is much smaller (and inconveniently happened the same weekend as DIFF), got Alfred Molina and Ira Sachs in to promote their new movie, Little Men. It's something to work on for next year, I suppose. May I suggest getting Spinal Tap to record a new “These go to 11” promo? Fortunately, the special repertory screenings and the general programming was strong enough to make this year's deal worth attending. So here's to 10 more.