Create Your Own Texas-Centric Film Festival

Frances McDormand in Blood Simple
Frances McDormand in Blood Simple Getty Images
Another day, another pushback. While safety during the pandemic is rightfully at the forefront of most people's minds, many understandably yearn for a future where arts and entertainment will be “back to normal.” The film industry has certainly seen a huge shift in how films are distributed, and with productions shut down worldwide, the possibility of seeing new releases in theaters grows more and more distant.

Among the core players of the filmgoing seasona re the fall festivals, in which studios will bank on their prime awards contenders to gain favorable reviews and perform well at award shows later. Festivals such as Toronto, New York, Telluride and Venice often see the debut of each year’s “Oscar bait,” or the prestige and independent films that tend to dominate the awards race.

Forget the fact that the Oscars themselves seem to be changing their eligibility requirements every day; the festivals themselves might not even happen. After the Cannes Film Festival was canceled earlier this year, Telluride followed suit, and festivals in New York, Toronto and Venice have announced a vague plan to undergo virtual screenings. Even so, studios have already pushed a majority of fall releases to next year, and many are hesitant to debut new films without a guaranteed audience.

These trends are disappointing, especially for hardcore cinephiles who enjoy this exciting time of the year. Those looking to fill this void in their viewing schedule will want to check out some of these festival favorites from years past, all of which were in part local productions.

Blood Simple

In the catalog of great American filmmakers, the Coen Brothers often rank toward the top because of their incredible versatility across many genres. The recurring themes of the Coens’ films (including fear of death, cons gone awry, baffling side characters and idiosyncratic conversations) can all be found in their micro-budget debut Blood Simple, a thrilling neo-noir shot across Central Texas. Blood Simple had its world debut at Dallas’ own USA Film Festival in 1984 before making its way to Toronto, New York and Sundance.

Blood Simple follows wealthy scoundrel Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) as he attempts to arrange the murder of his wife, Abby (Frances McDormand), and her lover Ray (John Getz). As plans go awry, blood and cash are spilled, and a case of mistaken identities lead to increasingly disturbing and hilarious scenarios.

Part of the joy of Blood Simple is seeing the Coens’ use their limited budget to their advantage and seeing the ingenuity that their constraints inspired. The camera weaves in and out of the seedy environments, giving the audience a slightly warped perspective of events. It’s an extraordinary debut, and fans of the Coens’ later films will want to watch the festival darling that kick-started their career.

Blood Simple is streaming on HBO.
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Ain't them bodies haints: A Ghost Story.
A Ghost Story

While the title may suggest a supernatural horror film in the vein of The Conjuring or Insidious, A Ghost Story is anything but that. The profound meditation on eternity hails from local filmmaker David Lowery, who shot the film across multiple locations in the Dallas area. The film follows a recently deceased musician (Casey Affleck) who observes the world in the days and years following his death, draped in a simple sheet resembling a childlike ghost costume.

This simple motif allows the film to explore how small an individual life feels in juxtaposition to the vastness of time. Affleck’s character observes generations of families that lived in his same house, watching as the same hardships and joys are carried over between timelines. By the time he bears witness to his own final days, he’s become accustomed to watching the world pass by.

The extent to which Affleck’s character observes the world is limited to the environments he himself visited, and this local touch makes the film more personal. Although the philosophy of humanity’s fleeting impact could be depressing to some, the film is keen to explore how memories and ideas of the past will continue to linger long past their own time. Those looking for a thought-provoking movie worthy of analysis will surely enjoy this beautiful film.

A Ghost Story is streaming free on Netflix.

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Nastassja Kinski in Paris, Texas
Getty Images
Paris, Texas

Another thoughtfully meditative film revolving around a family crisis, Paris, Texas is a road-movie classic well known for its beautiful Texas locations. The film follows Travis (Harry Dean Stanton), a wandering traveler who wakes up in the middle of the desert with little memory of his life before. Travis’ brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) picks him up and reintroduces him to his son Hunter (Hunter Carson), and the pair travel to Houston in search of Hunter’s mother.

This is a quiet, thoughtful film that explores Travis’ reacclimation to the world as he visits familiar locales and is told of the life he once lived. Harry Dean Stanton’s sensitive, reserved lead performance is the sort that is rarely seen nowadays, and the film is filled with memorable side characters. The film’s epic 147 minute running time is less daunting when considering how hard it is to look away from the moments of pure, infectious joy.

The Texas locations are clever, as the film contains many allusions to western stories, particularly in Travis’ journey to “save” his ex-wife Jane and restore their relationship. German filmmaker Wim Wenders was interested in bringing a folk story to life in the American West and collaborated with playwright Sam Shepard to craft the story of brothers reunited. Paris, Texas was acclaimed at the time of release, winning the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and it remains an integral part of Americana to this day.

Paris, Texas is streaming on HBO Max.
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Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman and Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde
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Bonnie and Clyde

Fifty years before they were involved in the most famous Oscar flub in history, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway played with equally controversial material in the 1967 classic Bonnie and Clyde. Despite the backing of Warner Bros, the film faced severe hardships making it to the screen, with the studio concerned about the film’s graphic violence and frequent sexual innuendos. Bonnie and Clyde is best known as the film that brought the free expressionism of French New Wave cinema to American movies, and thus is one of the cornerstone films of “New Hollywood.”

The story of Bonnie and Clyde has obvious local ties, and the film was noteworthy due to the fact that it was shot on location in Texas, a rarity at the time. Although the film plays loose with a lot of the historical facts, it became an early example of how cinema can engage with well known historical figures who have become mythologized. Cinematic antiheroes were common enough in international films, but seeing these cold-blooded killers humanized was absolutely game-changing for American audiences.

After debuting at the Montreal Film Festival, Bonnie and Clyde was released gradually across select locations in a way similar to how many independent studios release their films today. The word quickly spread, gaining praise from critics like Roger Ebert, who saw it as a “milestone” in the history of filmmaking. Film fans will not waste their time by checking out this classic.

Bonnie and Clyde is streaming on HBO Max.
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Liam Gaughan has been covering film and television since before he had a driver's license, and in addition to the Observer has been published in, Schmoes Know, Taste of Cinema and The Dallas Morning News. He enjoys checking classic films off of his watchlist and working on spec scripts.

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