"We'll all be seeing it for the first time, and Todd is interested in seeing what the audience response is," Cain says. "I hope that's what we wind up showing more and more often, films that come out of Sundance looking for their next step. It allows filmmakers the chance to see what worked and what didn't, so they can come here and say, 'Let's see what it does now.'" Also playing the fest is another 2007 Sundancer: the sweet, small Son of Rambow, which is significantly kinder to the audience than the similarly themed Be Kind Rewind.

Another can't-miss Sundancer coming though Dallas is The Black List, in which former Fort Worth Star-Telegram and New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell interviews the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Chris Rock, Colin Powell, Sean Combs, Louis Gossett Jr., Bill T. Jones and many others about what it means to be black in America—simple as that, hard as it is to believe no one's ever even attempted such a thing. Mitchell is never seen nor heard from, as he and director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders let their subjects talk for a few minutes before moving on in what only seems on the surface like a thumbnail glimpse into celebrity. Expanded interviews will be available in a book, due out before year's end.

Truth is, one of the best bigger films in the fest is Nicholas Stoller's Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which had a raucous debut at SXSW and which opens wide April 18. It was written by and stars Jason Segal, a regular in Judd Apatow's stable going back to Freaks and Geeks. What easily could have played like a Ben Stiller romantic comedy is significantly smarter and sharper—precisely because it knows its audience won't tolerate the lazy same-ol' from a guy who, till now, has been the dude passing around the bong in the backseat.

Richard Jenkins and Hiam Abbass in The Visitor
Richard Jenkins and Hiam Abbass in The Visitor

Details

AFI Dallas International Film Festival runs March 27 through April 6. Visit www.afidallas.com for more information.

Also coming to Dallas fresh from Austin (and Toronto and Sundance) is The Visitor, writer-director Tom McCarthy's beautiful film about the invisible people living in the margins and shadows. McCarthy, an actor recently seen as fabulist Scott Templeton on The Wire, returns to Dallas eight years after starring in the locally made Certain Guys. Says McCarthy about life on the festival circuit: "The exciting thing about these festivals is you have people who really like to go to movies, who aren't just looking to movies as an escape but also looking to movies for motivation, inspiration or just to be moved and enlightened."

AFI Dallas' opening-night film is Helen Hunt's Then She Found Me, in which the first-time writer-director stars as a woman desperate to have a child before she turns 40 (though Hunt herself turns 45 this year, never mind that). It's a confident debut, though an odd hybrid: a sitcom pilot rendered as melodrama starring the likes of Matthew Broderick (as her husband and, seriously, an irresistible man-child), Colin Firth (as the single-dad love interest) and Bette Midler (as the famous mother who gave up for adoption Hunt's character when she was a year old). In short, it's the kind of film a mother, which is to say my mother, would love.

The closing-night offering, Battle in Seattle, is far more successful; it's a sort of tear-gas-drenched version of Crash, a gritty evocation of a tumultuous moment all but erased from recent memory. It too marks an actor's debut as writer and director, in this case Queen of the Damned's Stuart Townsend, who directs girlfriend Charlize Theron, as well as Woody Harrelson and Andre Benjamin and Lost's Michelle Rodriguez. The film is a multilayered and unexpectedly thrilling retelling of the 1999 riots that engulfed Seattle during the World Trade Organization's meetings, which were cut short by protesters who ranged from righteous activists to hell-raising anarchists. Shot documentary-style by the brilliant cinematographer Barry Aykroyd (United 93), Townsend has little patience for both the cops who willy-nilly attacked peaceful protesters and for some of the protesters themselves whose reckless antics wound up stifling necessary debate amongst those who came to Seattle demanding the WTO treat poor countries with the same deference shown its richer members.

AFI is actually like most film festivals: Its documentaries offer the most must-sees. Alex Gibney brings to Dallas his Hunter S. Thompson doc Gonzo, which chronicles with great wit and warmth the rise and fall of the good Doctor of Journalism, who ended his tale with a bullet to the head three years ago. Thompson likely would have appreciated former TV critic Manny Mendoza and local filmmaker Mark Birnbaum's debuting doc Stop the Presses: The American Newspaper in Peril, inspired in part by Mendoza's taking The Dallas Morning News' buyout offer two years ago. Featuring the likes of Ben Bradlee, Walter Cronkite, Todd Gitlin and, yup, former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller, it's a profoundly dispiriting film (newspaper companies do the goddamnedest, dumbest things) but also surprisingly inspiring, as it points to the inevitable reinvention of an industry in need of new life.

Also worth a peek: Jamie Kennedy's Heckler, which begins as an investigation into why audience members heckle performers, then evolves into a more pointed piece about the validity of criticism—though it's more than a little bit of a put-on, as Kennedy gives bloggers (and Richard Roeper, heh) a hard time over their respective damnations of Malibu's Most Wanted. And Nerdcore Rising might be the best doc ever made about scrawny white dudes rapping about Chewbacca and computers in front of eight people during an East Coast tour. And nothing screams "film festival" more than that.

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