By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
By Claire Lawton
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Anna Merlan
If I were to spend this space mentioning every AFI Dallas International Film Festival title worth at least a look, there'd be room enough only for a queue of names. So plentiful are this year's recommended offerings—a majority of the 70-plus features, not to mention even more shorts—that it's tempting to brand AFI Dallas, only in its third year, as a major player on a crowded field of festivals. It's not, of course: Festivals are sadly judged by the number of acquisitions they submit to market and the amount of new talent introduced to Entertainment Weekly, and AFI's no Sundance or Toronto. It doesn't pretend to be. But this year's lineup makes a strong case for James Faust and Sarah Harris as thoughtful, hell-raising programmers capable of getting the best of the best in front of Dallas audiences for whom this event should now be considered a must-attend.
Consider the one-two punch of these two titles alone: Robert Siegel's Big Fan, a knockout at Sundance still without a distributor, and Scott Hamilton Kennedy's Oscar-nominated documentary The Garden, a thrilling story about a lush heaven in the midst of South Central's hell that has yet to break from the film-festival circuit. Both are among the most unflinching, discomfiting, grim, hopeful, truthful offerings in recent memory—and among the most rewarding. They're both necessary.
Siegel's Big Fan isn't so different from his Wrestler, which he wrote: Both depict men on the wrong side of the win-loss column. But Patton Oswalt's Paul Aufiero wasn't ever a star—he's nothing more than a parking-lot attendant jotting down the script that will fuel his late-night sports-talk radio rants. He's a die-hard New York Giants fan, who, with his pal Sal (Kevin Corrigan), schleps all the way to the Meadowlands for home games just to listen to the radio in the parking lot. Big Fan is a dark-hearted tale with a big-hearted lead who finds out just what it means to take one for the home team. Oswalt's worthy of the hoary cliché: The comedian of comedy's a revelation who delivers here the performance everyone claimed Rourke offered in The Wrestler.
And in The Garden you will find a story familiar to any big city ground up in the gears of City Hall politics; Dallasites will feel at home even in the Los Angeles setting in which city council members barter backroom deals that crush their constituents beneath their boot heels. The story of a 14-acre community garden's struggle to survive despite the approaching bulldozers sicced on them by a greedy, loathsome landowner, The Garden is both political thriller and courtroom drama—and war-zone documentary in which the body count rises as the countdown clock starts ticking in advance of the rumbling machines sent in to tear down paradise.
If AFI Dallas consisted of only those two films, that would have been enough. Yet every single day on the schedule is stuffed with films to recommend, among them: Grace, a surprisingly touching but disturbingly harrowing tale of a mother who wills her stillborn baby back to life; Moon, writer-director Duncan Jones' bleak but somehow hopeful tale of a man (Sam Rockwell) mining the moon for three years all by his lonesome, save for the company of a robot voiced by Kevin Spacey; Dallas native Keven McAlester's The Dungeon Masters, about the extremes to which some Dungeons & Dragons fetishists take the role-playing game; To the Eyes of Me, Keith Maitland's terrific high school doc that just happens to be set at the Texas School for the Blind in Austin; Gigantic, a perfectly lovely indie romcom starring Paul Dano as an NYC mattress salesman and Zooey Deschanel as the free-spirited kook who digs him; and Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, about bomb-squad soldiers in Baghdad and easily the best film yet made about the war in Iraq. Those are just for starters.
Then, there's Food Inc., a doc that will turn even vegans into hunger-strikers; Say My Name, a lovingly detailed history of hip-hop from the female perspective, from Roxanne Chante to Erykah Badu; RIP: The Remix Manifesto, about the clamping-down on culture by copyright forces; St. Nick, an almost wordless tale about two young children living by their lonesome somewhere in Texas; and Peter and Vandy, a painful, fragmented look at a relationship as it comes together and falls apart. And on and on and on.
In other words: Buy a festival pass and see everything. Of the dozens of films we've sneak-peeked, but a single one disappointed—Rock Slyde, a private-dick comedy that plays like a failed mid-season TV pilot. But even it's redeemed by the lead performance of Patrick "Puddy" Warburton, who will attend the fest.
We'll preview and review further on Unfair Park (http://blogs.dallasobserver.com/unfairpark) throughout the fest, as we document the goings-on and award presentations to the likes of Robert Towne, Peter Bogdanovich and Adrian Brody, here for the U.S. premiere of The Brothers Bloom by that brilliant Brick-layer Rian Johnson. The fest is yet to come. —Robert Wilonsky
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