Five Golden Reels

The Deep Ellum Film Festival grows up--nicely

Everything's going to be all right. If there's a theme to this year's Deep Ellum Film Festival, perhaps it's that single, simple sentence of reassurance, repeated in a handful of movies screening this week and suggested in several others. A dying artist says it to an immigrant family that's suffered its own unimaginable loss; a lifelong loser says it to a Vegas hooker who's been battered and bloodied; a spacecraft's sole survivor says it to her kitty cat just before all hell breaks loose; and a dead bluesman sings it in the opening credits of a movie about a man suffering from testicular cancer. Even if it's not said, it's certainly implied in many of the movies on the schedule, the strongest lineup in the brief history of the 5-year-old Deep Ellum Film Festival. And it's certainly a theme that resonates with the Deep Ellum Film Festival, founded by Michael Cain as a fund-raiser for cancer research shortly after his father succumbed to pancreatic cancer.

What seemed like a noble idea in 1999--and an inevitable one, given the plethora of film fests that sprang up around then--has turned into an event burdened by expectation, a bellwether of success. Its early schedules were filled with old films and little-seen offerings already weary after making the festival rounds; the DEFF was better known for its parties than screenings. That changed in 2001, when In the Bedroom, The Devil's Backboneand Bill Paxton's directorial debut, Frailty, premiered at Deep Ellum; tomorrow's hangover was forced to take a back seat to tonight's screening. "That was the first time the distributions company took us seriously," Cain says. "But in 2000, Sandra Bullock was here."

In its fifth year, the festival is a serious comer now, with a lineup of movies that rivals most fests across the state and around the country; South by Southwest had nothing this year as provocative as Errol Morris' The Fog of War, as moving as Jim Sheridan's In Americaor as enchanting as Sylvain Chomet's The Triplets of Belleville. Some of this has to do with the DEFF's having taken over the Santa Monica Film Festival, with its estimable Left Coast connections; it's easier to spread the gospel with a revival tent erected on an L.A. beach. DEFF at 5 is a child who's learned not only to read but write books. And some of this has to do with just sticking around, proving you're no pretender.

Bad luck of the Irish: A family wins and loses In America, Jim Sheridan's poignant fairy tale.
Bad luck of the Irish: A family wins and loses In America, Jim Sheridan's poignant fairy tale.
Hello, my baby: Alien: The Director's Cut opens Deep Ellum Film Festival.
Hello, my baby: Alien: The Director's Cut opens Deep Ellum Film Festival.

"The fifth anniversary of a film festival is a unique milestone," Cain says. "In many people's eyes it is either now valid and has created a vital place in the film community with ties both within the local film community and the world, or it has shown its worth and become relegated to being a nice local film festival that will entertain those that attend but not really make a difference."

This year, Cain and DEFF organizers have scheduled fewer screenings but chosen more wisely; there are still copious locally made films and documentaries of varying quality, from brilliant to sketchy, but the result is the strongest lineup any local film festival has offered in recent memory. And this year's fest just feelsspecial, with the use of the Majestic Theater for the opening-night screening of Alien: The Director's Cut; Cain promises it's the beginning of year-round screenings at the once-and-future cinema, though that remains to be seen since the theater doesn't actually have a 35mm projector in full-time use, which means DEFF had to rent one. "You have to think bigger," Cain says. "To be taken seriously, a film festival needs at least one theater that holds more than 1,000 people. That's how distributors take you seriously."

There will also be outdoor "drive-in" screenings at Mockingbird Station's DART stop, a few industry-insider panels and several swanky parties at Blue and the former Copper Tank space on Main Street, including awards ceremonies with such guests as Gary Busey, Tess Harper, Secondhand Lions writer-director Tim McCanlies, producer Ed Pressman and Inwood Theatre-boss-turned-indie-film-distributor Bob Berney. (Berney's behind such films as Y Tu Mamá Tambiénand Whale Rider, which is why they're being screened.) There will also be an exhibition of artwork done by Timothy Leary during the final year of his life.

"Our motto for this year's festival is stolen from a saying by Timothy Leary: 'You get the Deep Ellum Film Festival you deserve,'" Cain says. "For those who want to show up at a film and see something new, that is what they deserve. Nothing wrong with that. For those who want to immerse themselves in the almost 100 shorts, features, art shows, music acts, panels and parties, that is what they deserve. Our belief is that the festival has a responsibility to be dangerous, to take chances, to try new things, some of which will fail and some of which will succeed and allow us to grow towards being one of the top festivals in the world...It would be easy to show a bunch of indie films at a theater and say, 'Good night,' but that has never been our way."

What follows is a look at the highlights of this year's Deep Ellum Film Festival--no completist's guide, but a few of our picks for the best and most intriguing offerings on the schedule. Most screenings will take place at the Angelika Film Center, 5321 E. Mockingbird Lane; closing-night film The Coolerwill be at the Magnolia Theatre, 3699 McKinney Ave. For a complete list of screenings and parties, and for ticket information, go to www.def2.org.

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