Best of the Fest: The Films of the 2015 Dallas International Film Festival

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headerPreston Barta // Features Editor

There is something thrilling about the Dallas International Film Festival. For a few days out of the year, everyone is a film junkie, hitting up red carpets to see their favorite stars or waiting for hours to catch the festival’s most buzzed about flicks.

Anything can happen: THE LEGO MOVIE directors (Phil Lord and Chris Miller) could crash your interview, you could shake hands with Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki, or even have a film pull at your heartstrings, causing you to leave the theater like someone cut up some onions. Good things always happen at DIFF.

This year’s crop of films had many, MANY exciting features, documentaries and shorts. After seeing numerous movies from local filmmakers and Big D visitors, we put together a list: the best of the fest– the films that had us talking long after exiting the theater.

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7 CHINESE BROTHERS

Narratively speaking, this film didn’t have much going on, yet it was a hell of a time kicking it with Jason Schwartzman (RUSHMORE) and laughing until it hurt.

In 7 CHINESE BROTHERS (a shout-out to the song by REM), Schwartzman plays a lonely, down-on-his-luck alcoholic named Larry who lives with a snorting French Bulldog in a small Austin apartment. He spends most of his time talking to his pup and arguing over the bargain liquor at his corner convenience store.

Larry isn’t the best guy around, but you can’t help but root for him. Schwartzman is tasked with carrying much of the film’s humor – whether its the gags (where he imitates a fat kid getting out of a pool) or witty banter (scenes with his dog) – and doesn’t come up short.

Sometimes the chances of being a little strange and different can pay off. 7 CHINESE BROTHERS is endearingly unusual and funny.

23871675209908324BEING EVEL

I may not have been alive at the time American daredevil Evil Knievel jumped Caesars Palace or the Grand Canyon, but I can easily see how the man impacted the lives around him and the many generations that followed. As a kid, I watched the Jackass crew, Tony Hawk, Travis Pastrana, and even Knievel’s son Robbie do great, big things. And if you’re like me, you may have built some ramps in your street when you were a young’n and/or had your friends line up on the sidewalk as you jumped over them on a skateboard or bike. Evel inspired so many.

While we can watch videos of his crashes and successes, the documentary BEING EVEL sheds light on his private life. Through this phenomenal piece we get insight into the complicated figure that was Evel, the injuries he suffered, the playboy he was, the people her hurt along the way, and the price he had to pay to be the most famous daredevil there ever was.

23871675210100536A BRILLIANT YOUNG MIND

Previously titled X+Y, A BRILLIANT YOUNG MIND was one of the most lovable and surprisingly terrific films of the festival. Yeah, perhaps you’ve seen films that have embarked on a similar road of a smartie going on to do big things for the world. However, this film offers more relatable, human moments. It focuses on loss, family and most importantly love— and it only helps that it features a strong script and impressive performances.

23871675209908367I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS

This bittersweet drama directed by Brett Haley and starring Blythe Danner opened the festival this year, and it kicked it off in a big way.

The story tells of a widow named Carol (Danner) who is forced to confront her fears about love, family, and death. After her routine is broken, Carol makes new friends (Martin Starr) and decides to start dating again (Sam Elliot).

I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS received rave reviews from its premiere at Sundance back in January, and the same praise carried over in Dallas. It showcased felt performances and proved that even if things get bad in life, there’s always greatness in the world.

23871675209952537LOVE & MERCY

Bill Pohlad’s LOVE & MERCY paints an unusual portrait of Beach Boys front-man Brian Wilson. John Cusack and Paul Dano were the note-perfect duo to tackle the role of Brian Wilson. They each bring their own unique style and approach to the character and wear the icon like a suit. They don’t do impressions or rub your eyes in disbelief, but channel the man so distinct in appearance and voice to a level beyond praise.

Biopics often run into the problem of trying to fit too much into a two-hour run-time. We have seen this before in such films as 2004’s RAY, where the story never let itself settle with a coherent mood and narrative. LOVE & MERCY, however, impeccably blends two timelines in Wilson’s life: his life in the ’60s where he fell into the deep abyss of drugs and created the music that made him legend, and the later part of his life when he meets his Cadillac saleswoman and future wife Melinda (Elizabeth Banks) while under the thumb of controlling psychologist Dr. Eugene Landy (a devilishly good Paul Giammati).

LOVE & MERCY showcases the tragic but great life that Wilson led and continues to lead. While we may not all know Wilson’s pain, we can resonate with his fire and passion, and admire his genius. It’s a story that is both raw and honest, and you will soon not forget.

23871675210340488ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL

ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL earned the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance, and deservedly so, as it was easily the best film out of DIFF this year. It’s wise, funny, and heartrending without resorting to exploitation. Everything about the film feels genuine.

The film focuses on the relationship between two friends (Thomas Mann and Olivia Cooke), one of whom has cancer. You may be asking: didn’t we experience this last year with THE FAULT IN OUR STARS? The comparisons are inevitable; however, after you watch ME AND EARL, you will say the comparison is invalid. The actors in ME AND EARL give performances so real and alive you forget its fiction.

23871675210129960SOME BEASTS

There’s a pretty good chance that you’ve heard of most of the films above. However, the most exciting aspect of a film festival may be the chance of uncovering something special. For any film critic or cinephile, there’s nothing quite like finding a film you’ve never heard of but wholeheartedly appreciate right off the bat. That is the case with Cameron Bruce Nelson’s SOME BEASTS.

In Nelson’s feature debut, we explore the rural side of Southwest Virginia, with a story that follows the life of a modern-day organic farmer (a terrific Frank Mosley) and his relationships (the equally as great Heather Kafka and Lindsay Burdge), along with the trails and tribulations he faces.

This is a quiet film, yes. There’s not a whole lot of dialogue within. We spend our time observing the day-to-day life of a farmer and realizing how misunderstood the work is. It’s hard work, and SOME BEASTS does an exceptional job of sharing that with its audience.

Honorable Mentions

+/-; BATKID BEGINS: THE WISH HEARD AROUND THE WORLD, HOLBROOK/TWAIN: AN AMERICAN ODYSSEY; NOWITZKI. THE PERFECT SHOT; RAIDERS!: THE STORY OF THE GREATEST FAN FILM EVER MADE; RED ON YELLA, KILL A FELLA; RESULTS; SACRIFICE; and SLOW WEST

Until next year…

All information on DIFF can be found on diff2015.dallasfilm.org.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.