For its sixth installment, the Dallas International Film Festival seems to have finally found a proper groove.
In its first three, pre-recessionary years, the festival (then presented in partnership with the American Film Institute) seemed disproportionately gilded, with A-list parties at Neiman Marcus and limousines wrapped around the W Hotel. Was this really the right tone for an event that's supposed to celebrate indie filmmaking, even one in the Big D?
But then the bottom dropped out of the economy, and the festival was inevitably forced to scale back -- and suddenly it was hard to distinguish what made the Dallas fest different from dozens of other regional film festivals across the country.
Last year's installment, however, had just the right mixture of solid movies and visiting celebs, as well as a quintessentially Dallas-y opening-night screening, at the Winspear Opera House. (At the after-party at the Crow Collection of Asian Art, the sight of a tipsy, high-heeled patron nearly falling into a fountain was almost as dramatic as some of the movies the festival showed.)
This year, DIFF appears to have its strongest lineup yet, starting with Thursday night's opening film, Liberal Arts, a note-perfect comedy-drama written and directed by TV star Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother), about a drifting 30-something who falls in love with a college student when he returns to his alma mater for the weekend. The film, which brings the opening-night event back to the Majestic Theatre downtown after a few years' absence, eschews the cliché of older-guy, younger-girl rom-coms, and proves unusually wise and sweet.
With dozens of features screening between now and April 22, it's always tricky to figure out where you should spend your time and money. (And my one knock against the fest: It does seem to carry on a few days too long.)
But here's a brief guide, based on what I've seen and what I'm most looking forward to. It comes with the familiar film-festival caveat: The whole point of events like this is to take a chance on something completely unknown. Most of the screenings will be at the Angelika and Magnolia theaters in Dallas. For complete descriptions, as well as ticket information, visit www.dallasfilm.org.
The sneak peaks
Although they will turn up in theaters soon enough, sometimes it's fun to get an advance look at high-profile titles. This year those include: Bernie (7:45 p.m. April 22, Angelika), a con-man comedy directed by Richard Linklater and starring Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey and Shirley MacLaine; Darling Companion (3 p.m. April 22, Angelika), starring Diane Keaton as a woman who comes unstrung after she loses her dog; and Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope (5:30 p.m. Sunday and 10 p.m. April 19, Magnolia), the latest from Super Size Me director Morgan Spurlock, about geek culture.
DIFF usually includes a number of titles that screened at the bigger fests, and this year the choices are spot-on. My favorite film at Sundance was the brutal drama Compliance (10:15 p.m. Wednesday, Magnolia; 9:30 p.m. April 19, Angelika), about an ugly phone prank that exposes the moral failings of a half-dozen people. Steel yourself for this sometimes unpleasant but deeply essential and intelligent work. One film that fell under the radar at Sundance is Father's Chair (10:30 p.m. Sunday and 4 p.m. Monday, Magnolia), an affecting drama about a father chasing after his runaway son.
From SXSW, you'd be well-advised to check out Somebody Up There Likes Me (10 p.m. Friday and 7:15 p.m. Saturday, Angelika), an eccentric yet entirely lovable comedy from the offbeat, Austin-based talent Bob Byington, whose Harmony and Me screened at DIFF a couple of years back. There's also Girl Model (9:45 p.m. Wednesday and 5:15 p.m. April 19, Angelika), a terrific documentary by Mansfield native David Redmon and his partner, Ashley Sabin, about an American model scout in Russia.
DIFF is bringing the co-stars of Showtime's The Big C, Laura Linney and Gabourey Sidibe, to town. The actresses will be honored at a special event April 20. Linney will be interviewed on stage the next morning at the Nasher Sculpture Center (11 a.m.); a retrospective screening of her breakthrough 2000 film You Can Count on Me follows at the Angelika (2:45 p.m.). Sidibe is expected to attend a screening of her Oscar-nominated 2009 film Precious (12:30 p.m. April 21, Angelika).
Rolling the dice
Here are a few titles I haven't seen yet but that are at the top of my list to check out. Alps (4:15 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. April 20, Angelika) is Greek director Giorgos Lanthimos' follow-up to his Oscar-nominated curio Dogtooth; reviews haven't been great, but this is a talent worth keeping your eye on. Brooklyn Castle (4 p.m. Saturday and 12:15 p.m. Sunday, Angelika) is a documentary about a chess prodigy; I regrettably missed it at SXSW, where it was one of the most well-regarded titles this year. Finally, the festival is serving up a special sidebar of films from South Korea, perhaps the most intriguing of which will be Quick (10:30 p.m. Friday, Magnolia; 6:30 p.m. April 22, Angelika), described as a sort of Speed on a motorbike.