Last year I had the great privilege of screening my short THE SECRET KEEPER at the Phoenix Film Festival, and I have to say, it was one of my favorite fests I’ve ever attended. With that memory, I head out again this year, with no film, but with the expectation of seeing a lot of great films and meeting fantastic filmmakers. Phoenix occupies an interesting place in the festival circuit. Along with one of my other favorites, the Sonoma International Film Festival, they are one of the first film festivals after Sundance and SXSW which become the gatekeepers for the rest of the year’s programming picks. However, Phoenix doesn’t program a lot of films from those festivals, they often find gutsy, lower budget films that were overlooked by the bigs. So the whole feeling is more indie. The filmmakers just hang around and chat with each other and the badge-holders – it’s a vibe that is refreshing.

The Phoenix Film Festival is really two festivals, as the International Horror and Science Fiction Film Festival runs simultaneously in the same venue and under the same pass. This gives genre fans like me more films than a normal fest. I’ve split my “Can’t Miss” picks into two groups, but to really get the most out of the Phoenix Film Festival, you have go back and forth.

Phoenix Film Festival

DISNEYNATURE’S BEARS: How could I not pick my namesake? Like African Cats prior, this Alistair Fothergill film follows a single family over the course of the year, showing their struggles in the ever-changing world. It’s an action movie in which two grizzly bear cubs are taught the dangers of life, like finding food at the salmon run or avoiding the wolf pack. Of course, nothing is as cute as bear cubs playing, so expect a lot of that. Bears was filmed in Katmai National Park in Alaska and features the voice of John C. Reilly.

Jude Law in Dom Hemingway

Jude Law in Dom Hemingway

DOM HEMINGWAY: Jude Law hasn’t been this unlikeable since the Talented Mr. Ripley in this high profile film about a safe cracker out of prison after 12 years and looking to collect what is his due for keeping his mouth shut. Along the way, he tries to reestablish a relationship with his daughter (now married and with a child) and get his life right for the first time. Probable crazy scene stealing from Law. Dom Hemmingway was written and directed by Richard Shepard, the man responsible for one of my my favorite overlooked indies, THE MATADOR, starring Pierce Brosnan as a down on his luck assassin.

JAKE SQUARED: When Jake Klein, 50, throws himself a party, he hires an actor to play himself and hopes to film the whole extravaganza. But he and the actor are not the only Jake Kleins at the party as Jake at 40, Jake at 30 and Jake at 17, are there, too, along with a younger version of his mother, his dead father, his kids, ex-wives. Each one of them is full of advice on how Jake can fix his life. Is this really happening, or is he having a nervous breakdown? Sounds like a great Indie premise, really want to see how this one holds together. Looking for eye candy of across the demographics? How about Jane Seymour, Virginia Madsen, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Gia Mantegna? The writer/director calls the film a coming-of-middle-age piece

King of Herrings

King of Herrings

KING OF HERRINGS: Written, Co-directed and starring Eddie Jemison (Oceans Eleven’s Livingston Dell), this is a gritty film set in a David Mamet-esque world. When Ditch stiffs his poker buddy ‘The Professor’ for 9 dollars, The Professor seduces his wife. Fair, right? Jemison wrote the piece for his friends of 25 years, classmates from LSU, and filmed it in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Shot in black and white, the film feels like a Tom Waits video directed by Jim Jarmusch. It starts simply, but the situation spirals out of control pretty quickly as the battle for alpha male of this group takes on a menacing tone.

LITTLE HOPE WAS ARSON: Theo Love’s documentary looks at the burning of 10 churches in East Texas from every angle, including interviews with the arsonists themselves. A real life mystery playing out on screen like an episode of CSI, this case dominated the news for weeks in Texas, and played on every prejudice both inside and outside of the affected communities. The film doesn’t pass judgment, leaving it to the audience to draw their own conclusions, but no one can watch this without facing their own beliefs. Does everyone deserve forgiveness?

International Horror and Science Fiction Film Festival

Billy Club

Billy Club

BILLY CLUB: Patterned after iconic slasher villains like Jason Vorhees and Mike Myers, Billy Club features a frightening killer in a umpire’s mask and pads who takes down his victims with a baseball bat covered in spikes. Fifteen years after a triple homicide tore their Little League team and community apart, four friends reconvene to pay tribute to their fallen coach and teammates, but ‘The Umpire’ has other plans. Is it a parody or an homage to the horror films of the 80’s – you make the call!

CUJO: Featuring Dee Wallace: Everyone’s favorite dog movie after Lady and Tramp, up on the big screen again, with special guest Donna Trenton in attendance. You probably haven’t seen this movie in 30 years, will there ever be a better time again? Except maybe when your child first asks to get a puppy.

DUST OF WAR: Alien Invasion. Scorched Earth. Child with a powerful secret. All the pieces of a potentially awesome apocalypse story. The resistance – The Free Legion – vowed to protect her until her destiny brought back peace, but now the child has fallen into the hands of General Chizum, a brutal warmonger bent on unveiling her secret and using it to tip the scales of power. Also the aliens want her too. This film has been making the rounds on the fest circuit and I’m excited to finally see it!

MIND’S EYE: World Premiering and completing my tri-festival Eye trilogy (Sundance: I Origins, SXSW: Oculus), MIND’S EYE is described as a science fiction thriller about the paradoxes of time and memory, trauma and loss. Featuring Malcolm McDowell and Dean Cain, the film follows high-school musician, Mattie Carver, on a strange and unpredictable journey through the looking-glass world of the mind’s eye, searching for the truth in a constantly morphing reality before it slips away from her forever. Usually when a film’s synopsis is this general and non-specific, it means that the producers don’t really know what it’s about. I usually prefer that kind of movie.

The Sacrament

The Sacrament

THE SACRAMENT: Ti West’s found footage fest hit about a fashion photographer who visits his sister (indie star Amy Seimetz) at her new hippy commune (i.e. cult). Sure, it looks nice and everyone is happy. Really? This is a horror movie. It’s a slow burn but it sneaks up on you and is never dull. One of the best found footage flicks of the last few years, and West will be present at the second screening.


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