With my third straight year in attendance, Phoenix Film Festival has wedged itself into my yearly schedule for several reasons. First, it’s the first great festival of the year that has a true indie spirit. Both Sundance and SXSW have fought for indie filmmakers over the years, and celebrated new ones, but both of them are very tied into the hollywood system. They are festivals for art house divisions or high-profile production companies or producers to showcase their work for either publicity or purchase.
At Phoenix, while there will be several films with distribution already taken care of, a majority of the emphasis is on the more renegade filmmaker, the people who put together budgets on kickstarter and are just looking to be noticed. That atmosphere is very collegial and most of the filmmakers hang around the parties and talk freely with fans and other filmmakers. Alumni are very loyal (look at me and my buddy Paul Osborne, who I know will be there), and it’s just a few hour drive out from Los Angeles, well-worth the trip.
Second, the festival hosts a large genre selection, as the International Horror and Science Fiction Film Festival runs concurrently (and falls under the same badge). There is never a shortage of low-budget horror, much of which slips through festivals like Fantastic Fest and SXSW and finds a home here at Phoenix. I’ve seen a lot of gems here, most of which end up on Netflix a year later, but never get a theatrical release. I even found several great shorts there last year that ended up play Other Worlds Austin, or in earlier years, Austin Film Festival.
The programmers seem to focus on story and don’t get excited over arty-but-empty like some of the high-profile festivals do (mentioned above in this article). Third, and this is just a logistical thing but it’s really awesome, all the screenings take place under the same roof. No shuttling or driving around town, every screening takes place in the same metroplex, with the luxurious 600 seat Dolby-atmos equipped Cine Capri as the flagship theater. My butt still hurts from the Paramount here in Austin, I can’t wait for the ultra comfort of the rockers and the 70 foot wide screen.
10) Danny Collins
Directed by: Dan Fogelman
Cast: Al Pacino, Annette Bening, Christopher Plummer, Jennifer Garner, Bobby Cannavale
Synopsis: Inspired by a true story, Al Pacino stars as aging 1970s rocker Danny Collins, who can’t give up his hard-living ways. But when his manager (Christopher Plummer) uncovers a 40 year-old undelivered letter written to him by John Lennon, he decides to change course and embarks on a heartfelt journey to rediscover his family, find true love and begin a second act.
Thoughts: I had all but given up on one of our greatest working actors after a number of uninspired performances but I caught The Humbling last year, which was remarkably self-flagellating, and everyone who saw Manglehorn at SXSW last week raved about it to me. I love a good rock story, and Danny Collins boasts great supporting cast. (Manglehorn also plays at PhxFF). Danny Collins will be PhxFF’s opening night event screening in the Cine Capri.
9) Bread and Butter
Directed by: Liz Manashil
Cast: Bobby Moynihan, Christine Weatherup, Micah Hauptman, Lauren Lapkus, Eric Lange, Harry Groener, Dawn Didawick, Sean Wright
Synopsis: Amelia Karinsky, 30, is a late bloomer who has never had a boyfriend. She works for an eccentric life coach, Dr. Wellburn, who has a doctorate in Scandinavian Literature, but prefers that you call him “Doctor” as if he were a psychiatrist. One day Amelia buys a book at a used bookstore that has pencil scribblings throughout the margins of its pages. She becomes so entranced with whomever annotated the book that she tracks him down, admittedly in love before they ever meet.
Thoughts: Moynihan has been one of the most consistent SNL members for the last five years. Lapkus is from Orange is the New Black (the female guard that Nicky tried to seduce, unfortunately fired at the end of season two). In addition to Phoenix, Bread and Butter has screened at Woodstock, Minneapolis St. Paul, Cleveland, and New Filmmakers (amongst others)
8) Angel of Nanjing
Directed by: Jordan Horowitz and Frank Ferendo
Synopsis: The Yangtze River Bridge in Nanjing is one of the most famous bridges in China. It is also the most popular place in the world to commit suicide. For the past 11 years, Chen Si has been patrolling this bridge, looking to give aid for those who’ve gone there to end their lives. Incredibly, he has saved over 300 people since he began – nearly one every two weeks.
Thoughts: Looks to be a World Premiere about a near mythic folk hero who has been profiled in GQ, This American Life, and The New York Times. This looks like a documentary that could play many festivals after this.
Directed by: Khalil Sullins
Cast: Thomas Stroppel, Artie Ahr, Amber Marie Bollinger, Christine Haeberman, Steve Hanks, Mykayla Sohn, Arn Chorn Pond, John Merry
Synopsis: David and Ryan are trying to harness the power of the human mind… and failing. They’re both broke and struggle to support their families, but spend all of their time in a garage-lab full of stolen equipment, hoping that inventing telepathy will solve all their problems. After they meet Jordan, a smart and seductive new classmate, they make a discovery that changes everything. But the bleeding-edge technology opens a Pandora’s box of new dangers, as the team discovers that when they open their minds, there is nowhere to hide their thoughts.
Thoughts: I’m a sucker for build-it-the-the-garage sci-fi (call it the primer effect) and I love to see if these sort of stories can keep a genre fan invested despite what will probably be a pretty low-budget. Telepathy is not a typical SciFi plot, so its got that going for it as well.
Directed by: Frank Hall Green
Cast: Ella Purnell, Bruce Greenwood, Brian Geraghty, Teddy Kyle Smith, Nolan Gerard Funk, Ann Dowd, Diane Farr, Joshua Leonard
Synopsis: Mackenzie, a troubled but daring teenage girl, is sent by her struggling mother to live with her uncle in Juneau, Alaska. Although her uncle seems like a supportive caretaker and friend, the relationship turns and Mackenzie is forced to run. Trying to make her way back to Seattle alone to find her absent mother, Mackenzie only winds up deeper in the Alaskan interior. Lost and with no one else to turn to, she shadows a loner backpacker, Bartlett, an unlikely father figure with scars of his own.
Thoughts: This film has been getting great reviews from everyone I know who has seen it, and Bruce Greenwood has been my favorite underappreciated hero since UPN’s Nowehere Man. And how can the cinematography of this film not be gorgeous.
5) Monkey Kingdom
Directed by: Mark Linfield, Alastair Fothergill
Synopsis: Disneynature’s new film set among ancient ruins in the storied jungles of South Asia. Maya’s world is forever changed when she welcomes son Kip into her complicated extended family. Like all families, Maya’s has more than its share of colorful personalities—and she’s determined to give her son a leg up in the world. When their longtime home at Castle Rock is taken over by powerful neighboring monkeys, Maya’s family relocates, and she uses her street smarts and ingenuity to lead them to untapped resources amidst strange new creatures and unsettling surroundings.
Thoughts: Following what I called the greatest movie of all time (Bears), Disneynature again brings us a peak into an exotic and wild world. These films must be experienced on the big screen to truly appreciate them, and make for a perfect Earthday trip.
4) Sleeping With Other People
Directed by: Leslye Headland
Cast: Allison Bree, Adam Scott, Amanda Peet, Jason Sudeikis
Synopsis: Years after impulsively losing their virginity to each other in college, Lainey (Alison Brie) and Jake (Jason Sudeikis) meet at a support group in New York (“What’s a nice girl like you doing at a sex addicts meeting?”). A spark resurfaces, but they’ve walked this road before. Abject failures in romance who lead lives of serial infidelity and self-sabotage, they agree to a platonic friendship to mutually support their recover.
Thoughts: great ensemble here, ripe for comedy, the film got very positive marks after its Sundance Premiere. Headland wrote the remake to About Last Night… so she’s been down these dark alleys before. She also has a show in development at NBC starring Krysten Ritter of Don’t Tell the B in Apt. 23. The film will be PhxFF’s Sunday night event screening in the Cine Capri.
3) Blood Punch / Deathgasm
Directed by: Madellaine Paxson / Directed by: Jason Lei Howden
Blood Punch Cast: Milo Cawthorne, Olivia Tennet, Ari Boyland, Adelaide Kane, Cohen Holloway
Synopsis: A mysterious “bad girl” checks herself into rehab to find someone who can cook meth for her. After breaking him out, she draws him into a dangerous love triangle with her abusive dirty cop boyfriend and their get-rich-quick drug score plan. Everything goes terribly wrong, and then the next day, they do it again in this genre-bending neo-noir time-shifting whiplash of a movie.
Deathgasm Cast: Milo Cawthorne, James Blake, Kimberley Crossman
Synopsis: Metal-thrashing Brodie is an outcast in a sea of jocks and cheerleaders until he meets a kindred spirit in fellow metalhead Zakk. After starting their own band, Brodie and Zakk’s resentment of the suburban wasteland leads them to a mysterious piece of sheet music said to grant Ultimate Power to whoever plays it. But the music also summons an ancient evil entity known as Aeloth The Blind One, who threatens to tear apart existence itself.
Thoughts: I couldn’t possibly separate these two films in my mind, both which star phenomenal kiwi up and comer Milo Cawthorne. Blood Punch is a slick cross genre piece that’s funny and creepy and boasts a great love story. I had the privilege to give the film its World Premiere back when I was programming AFF and it has played many fest and won many awards since. Deathgasm was the most fun I had a SXSW. It’s got blistering black metal, comical gore, and the sweetest love story to put on corpse paint. These are two can’t miss films at PhxFF.
2) Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Directed by: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Cast: Connie Britton, Nick Offerman, Jon Bernthal, Thomas Mann and Olivia Cooke
Synopsis: Winner of the 2015 Sundance Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL is the story of Greg Gaines played by Thomas Mann, an awkward high school senior whose mom forces him to spend time with Rachel – a girl in his class (Olivia Cooke) whom he hasn’t spoken to since kindergarten – who was just diagnosed with cancer.
Thoughts: The film had astronomical bids at Sundance in excess of $10 million and critics seem to think it’s a better version of The Fault in Our Stars (which made $300 million by the way). Even better, it’s a great film, with fully drawn characters and moments of reality that feel like a window to life. The film will be PhxFF’s Saturday night event screening in the Cine Capri.
1) Growing up Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Kicking and Screaming, Frances Ha, While We’re Young)
Directed by: Noah Baumbach
Thoughts: NoahBaumbach has quietly bubbled under the Indie film world for years. His Kicking and Screaming (originally, and better titled 5th Year) was my twenties. I watched it probably 50 times. When Squid and the Whale came out, and everyone else discovered Baumbach’s unique voice, I was somewhat disappointed. I liked the film, but it seemed a little to presentational too me (like a Wes Anderson film, who hehad been working with). I liked it, but it somehow felt like artifice. Frances Ha returned us reality but unfortunately hung itself on a character some infernally unlikable it was hard to watch. This may have more to do withGerwig than anything else, she seems to ruin every film she is in (lone exception is Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress). This year marks the release of While We’re Young, a new comedy of manners starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver and AmandaSeyfried. To celebrate the release (and the closing night film atPhxFF), attendees will be able to watch these four films in pseudo-chronological order, focusing on the pressures of popularity of being in high school, the liberation and disappointment of college graduation, the confusion and inevitable dream-dashing of young adulthood and, finally, the reflection that comes with adulthood. If you only see one, you cannot go wrong with Kicking and Screaming, starring Josh Hamilton, EricStoltz, ParkerPosey, Olivia D’Abo, Chris Eigeman, and Samuel Gould.