After a three-year association with the American Film Institute, the Dallas International Film Festival goes solo with its fourth installment, beginning Thursday evening and running through April 18. Once again, the fest is offering up dozens of features and short films, many of which neither you (nor I) have ever heard about.
My first piece of advice is to trust the taste of the programmers and take a chance on one of these lesser-known titles; chances are you'll see something that you will be talking about for months. But if you're less risk-averse, here's a tip sheet on some of the more notable films. A few of these I've already seen; a few others have been praised by colleagues. You can find more information on these -- and all of the other films screening during the 11-day event -- at www.dallasfilm.org.
Skateland: In the past, the opening night of the festival was devoted to one high-profile title. This year, organizers are showcasing five programs, including a collection of shorts and an antic animated comedy from Belgium called A Town Called Panic. Champions of local filmmaking will probably want to check out Skateland, which was shot in East Texas and produced by a number of Dallas and Fort Worth natives. (It had its world premiere in January at Sundance.) The coming-of-age story sometimes meanders, but the filmmakers' passion and sincerity is evident throughout. Ashley Greene, who plays Alice Cullen in the "Twilight" films, is one of the stars.
Cracks: Haven't seen this one yet, but it's probably the movie I'm most anticipating, a boarding-school drama about a group of girls in 1930s England and their mysterious teacher (Eva Green, from Casino Royale). The film, directed by Ridley Scott's daughter, Jordan, earned strong reviews at the Toronto Film Festival last year.
The Dry Land: Another Texas-made effort, The Dry Land is written and directed by Ryan Piers Williams, a San Antonio native perhaps better known as America Ferrera's real-life boyfriend. Ferrera executive-produced and co-stars in this story of an Iraq War vet (Ryan O'Nan) adjusting to life back home. A little familiar -- especially if you've seen Brothers -- but definitely worth your time.
Down Terrace : Imagine one of Mike Leigh's chatty tales about the British working class, like Secrets and Lies or Life Is Sweet cross-pollinated with a bloody dishonor-among-thieves crime thriller. Yeah, sounded strange to me, too, but this tale of a highly suspicious family of thieves was the most arresting title at last fall's Fantastic Fest in Austin.
American: The Bill Hicks Story: This partly animated documentary about the controversial late comedian -- who died of pancreatic cancer in 1994, at the age of 32 -- was one of the hottest tickets at the South by Southwest Film Festival.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child : Another tale of a fallen artist, this one directed by Tamra Davis (Billy Madison), who was friends with Basquiat before his death from a heroin overdose in 1988. Missed it at Sundance, eager to catch up with it now.
Winter's Bone : Truth be told, I wasn't the biggest fan of this noirish drama, which won the dramatic competition at Sundance this year; the story of an Ozark Mountains girl (the admittedly excellent Jennifer Lawrence) searching for her ne'er-do-well father seemed to rely a little too heavily on clichés of rural America. But you can make up your own mind about what's sure to become one of the year's best-reviewed titles.
A Conversation With John Lee Hancock: The festival is honoring a number of well-known filmmakers and hosting dialogues with them, including Pete Docter (Up) and Guillermo Arriaga (screenwriter of 21 Grams and Babel). This looks to be the most interesting: The Longview-born Hancock directed two of the most beloved sports movies of the 2000s, The Rookie and The Blind Side.